When will the railways stop killing its mascot?

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PRERNA SINGH BINDRA
Award-winning Conservation Journalist

SEVEN ELEPHANTS were brutally mowed down by a speeding train on 22 September when trying to save two of their young trapped on the Siliguri-Alipurduar track in North Bengal. Five died, mercifully, on the spot. For two others — one, perhaps the matriarch, who charged at the train in pain and anger — it was a slow, agonising end.

Illustration: Anand Naorem

Like in other such tragedies, including the one in June this year that killed a female, this time too, the railways shrugged off the blame by saying, “The accident occurred between two tea gardens, which is not a protected zone. There are no forests in the vicinity.”

Forget that this stretch of line cuts through the tropical forests of the eastern Himalayas, with tracts of protected areas fragmented by tea gardens. Or even about how the driver failed to see, and react, to the herd ahead in a flat expanse of land on a moonlit night. Let’s look at the larger picture instead.

Consider the magnitude of the problem: Railways are among the top slayers of the elephant, with no less than 150 crushed by trains in India since 1987. There has been a constant dialogue with the forest department on the precautions they must take when trains ply the ‘killer track’, as it is dubbed. With reason. A fourth of the mortality has taken place on this 168-km rail route, with a number of well-identified elephant corridors, including the site of the current tragedy. More blood spilled when the tracks were converted to broad gauge in 2003 — with about 35 elephants massacred since then.

Ninety percent of the accidents occur at night, prompting NGOs, forest officers and conservationists to press for a night ban on trains, “which was shot down, prima facie”, rues a forest official. The demand to slow trains at night was met with the rejoinder that “it wasn’t practical on such a long track”.

In 2008, a Centre-appointed expert committee identified six vulnerable zones where trains were mandated to go slow — which is rarely implemented. The two departments are now hurling accusations that the accident site was not in these zones. “That’s because it is a flat expanse with no obstruction and clear visibility,” explains AN Prasad, director, Project Elephant.

Much as the picture of the dead and dying elephants refuses to go away, the real tragedy is that the massacre was needless and could have been prevented had there been real commitment. Possible solutions are well-documented, even as far back as a century, when the British instructed train drivers about elephant paths and restricted speed in the Lamdung division in Assam to prevent elephant mortality. A recent successful model is the track that runs through Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, where 20 elephants were killed between 1987 and 2002. There has been no mortality for the past seven years thanks to a concerted effort by the forest department, the railways and the Wildlife Trust of India. A series of measures were adapted including training to drivers, speed restriction and night patrol by forest guards.

Railways are among the top killers of elephants, crushing more than 150 since 1987

Instead of replicating this, wise men at the state forest department and the railways chalked out a bizarre idea to build a maze of underpasses and overbridges across the Siliguri-Alipurduar track. Why elephants would tamely scuttle under or climb over the track instead of following their migratory paths remained unanswered.

India failed its god, Ganesha, and the Indian Railways, its mascot — Bholu, the elephant. Many tears are being shed in the heat of the tragedy, and here is hoping that something concrete will come of it — not just for this track, but in other ‘fatal hotspots’ including those in Assam and the Coimbatore-Palakkad track.

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