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.

Similarly, the North Bengal-Sikkim line, along the foothills of the Kanchenjunga and the Teesta river valley, which passes through Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, the Chamarajanagar-Mettupalayam line in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the upgradation of the railway line in the Periyar-Agasthyamalai corridor in Kerala and Tamil Nadu will impede the movement of wildlife.

To mitigate the impact of such projects, it has been suggested that electric fences be built along the railway line to prevent elephants crossing the tracks. This will be more detrimental to the elephants and other animals as it interrupts their migratory patterns. Though reducing train speeds, early warning systems and other mitigation measures are partially effective, long-lasting solutions are better suited. The priority in ecologically sensitive areas should be to ensure that we make them spaces where there is little disturbance to wildlife. No new train lines should be proposed or approved by the railways in these specific areas.

The country can now afford the realignment of railway lines to preserve wildlife. Where realignment is not practical, mitigation measures should be strictly implemented, based on a solid understanding of wildlife issues. However, we need to be clear that measures such as monitoring the movements of elephants to warn train drivers are perhaps impractical. Elephants and other wildlife are not domestic livestock that could be monitored or herded round the clock.

Concerned over the rising number of elephant deaths on railway tracks, a parliamentary committee has now been appointed to assess and recommend measures to mitigate this serious threat. It is important that the committee consults those involved in saving elephants from various threats. That would give it a broader picture of the threat and the possible solutions. The flawed environmental impact assessment (EIA) process needs to be rejigged, and agencies implementing the projects should not be funding the EIA studies as the reports are very likely to be in favour of the funding agency.

Railway and transmission lines, as well as roads, are necessary for connectivity, power and communication. However, a sensitive approach towards wildlife, both in planning and implementation, is currently lacking and a more holistic developmental approach is indispensable. Railway tracks were first laid in the mid-19th century, when forest tracts were extensive and there were no serious threats to wildlife conservation. However, in the changed socio-economic scenario, achieving ecologically sustainable developmental goals should be one of the priorities. This is an opportunity for the parliamentary committee to put things on the right track.

The writer is a wildlife biologist working in the Western Ghats and a member of the State Wildlife Advisory Board in Karnataka

express@expressindia.com

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