On the elephant’s track

The new parliamentary committee should probe ways to mitigate railway hazards

As the year 2012 came to an end, heartrending images filled newspapers as five elephants were killed by a speeding train in Ganjam district, Orissa. More deaths were to follow in Uttarakhand and North Bengal. In a similar incident in 2010, the deaths of seven elephants in Jalpaiguri district raised a public outcry. Trying to protect the calves that were stuck on the tracks, the mother and other members of the herd were also killed by the speeding train.

Linear fragmentation threats such as railway tracks, highways, power transmission lines pose a threat to wildlife survival in a number of ways. They act as barriers to the movement of species, especially those that need contiguous tree canopy, such as the lion-tailed macaque, the loris, the Malabar giant and flying squirrels, the flying snake, or smaller animals, such as turtles, that find it hard to cross railway tracks. This restriction on movement limits access to food sources and nesting sites that are spread across the forests, apart from causing the genetic isolation of populations. But the most noticeable impact is the killing of animals by speeding trains.

Elephant mortality due to train accidents is high in the states of Assam, West Bengal, Orissa and Uttarakhand. Because of their large size, elephant deaths are bound to be noticed. The deaths of several smaller animals go undetected. But there are records of tiger, leopard, deer and several other species being killed in train accidents in various parts of the country. Casualties will be particularly high at night and at curves where visibility for engine drivers is poor.

Care needs to be taken when some of the proposed railway lines pass through ecologically sensitive areas. The government of Kerala is pushing for a line through Bandipur Tiger Reserve to upgrade connectivity between Mysore and the Wayanad districts. There are already two highways through this tiger reserve, and a train line parallel to these highways would further fragment the wildlife habitat. Despite the suggestion by the railways that an alternate route would be better suited, local leaders and a few "environmental" organisations are promoting this project and have filed an application in the Supreme Court.

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