Representative image of an elephant. Photo: Renato Conti
- Recurring instances of elephants being hit by trains running between Kanjikode and Madukkarai stations have highlighted the insufficiency of mitigation measures.
- Being killed by trains is not new to India’s elephants: 186 have died this way between 2009 and 2020 around the country, according to government data.
- In mid-2021, the National Green Tribunal took suo motu cognisance of the issue and appointed a committee under ‘Project Elephant’ to suggest additional measures.
Kochi: Three elephants were killed when a train hit them near Madukkarai in Tamil Nadu, on the evening of November 26, The Hindu reported. This brings the number of elephants that have died on this stretch of the railway track, along the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, in the last five years to 13.
Elephant deaths caused by colliding with trains is a recurring problem along this stretch, and the Southern Railways as well as the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have struggled to contain it.
In March 2021, a tusker succumbed to its injuries after being hit by a train on this stretch. The following month, activist R. Pandiaraja filed an application under the Right to Information Act with the Southern Railways. The latter’s reply revealed that eight elephants have been killed by train collisions between Kerala’s Kanjikode and Tamil Nadu’s Madukkarai railway stations in the last five years alone, according to The News Minute.
The reply also specified that seven of the eight deaths took place in a particular 52.56-km stretch, called the Palakkad-Podanur Up line, a.k.a. ‘line A’. The railways laid this stretch in 1974 and it passes through the “Ghat sections” of both states – meaning the Western Ghats.
The Hindu quoted Pandiaraja as saying, therefore, that a “permanent solution” to address elephant deaths on this stretch would be to permanently stop traffic along the A line.
The collision on Friday that killed the three elephants also occurred on the same line, according to The New Indian Express.
Earlier this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) took suo motu cognisance of how trains that ply during the night and early mornings are responsible for the most elephant deaths along this stretch.
Despite mitigation measures
It subsequently issued a notice to the Union environment ministry, the chief wildlife wardens of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the general manager of Southern Railways. Tamil Nadu and the Southern Railways filed status reports in reply, clarifying what they were doing to bring down elephant deaths.
In its response to the NGT, the Southern Railways listed the mitigation measures it had installed on this stretch: dawn-to-dusk speed restrictions on trains, ramps for elephants (small clearings along the length of the track that animals can use to escape from oncoming trains), sign boards to warn drivers, solar-powered fences with a low current to deter elephants, and elephant trackers placed in the area to communicate the presence of elephants to railway control, who could then warn locomotive drivers.
But the elephants that were killed on Friday died despite these measures.
In July, the NGT had noted that the Southern Railways would have to adopt “further measures” to address the issue, after the Tamil Nadu government said trains will killing elephants primarily because locomotive drivers couldn’t see the tracks well enough and because the local topography was “unsuitable” for the elephants to escape fast enough. The tribunal had instructed the Central Monitoring Committee, under the Union environment ministry’s ‘Project Elephant’, to “look into the issue” together with railway authorities, the Wildlife Institute of India and the governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
In early November, Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav reportedly said that his ministry “has been taking various measures to mitigate deaths of elephants on railway tracks”, in a written reply to a query from Pollachi MP K. Shanmuga Sundaram.
Yadav added that the ministry was “closely working” with Tamil Nadu forest authorities and the Southern Railways to “avoid deaths of elephants on railway lines”. He also said a committee from ‘Project Elephant’ had visited the stretch and suggested mitigation measures.
Elephant deaths on tracks
Trains colliding with wild elephants is not uncommon in India. In August this year, for example, two elephants, including possibly a three-month-old calf, died after being struck by a train in Uttarakhand.
“Most of the deaths are in Central and Eastern India”, with 30 elephants being killed in four years from 2013 in West Bengal alone, wildlife conservationist (and then consulting environment editor) Neha Sinha wrote in The Wire in 2018.
According to the environment ministry, speeding trains killed 186 elephants across India between 2009 and 2020, according to an environment ministry tally. The Hindu reported that according to ‘Project Elephant’ under the ministry, Assam had recorded the most deaths (62), followed by West Bengal (57) and Odisha (27).
A 2017 study, by scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, analysed elephant movements along the 161-km-long Siliguri-Alipurduar track in northern West Bengal. They reported that a “disproportionate number” of elephant-train collisions occurred at night, and that male elephants were more prone to accidents. The study also found that the Siliguri-Alipurduar stretch had 89 elephant deaths between 1974 and 2015 – with a “marked increase” over time and a sharper one between 2004-2009 and 2010-2015.
However, the environment ministry had claimed in 2020 that “elephant deaths by train accidents show a declining trend” based on data from states between 2016 and 2018, due to “concerted efforts” by the Central and state governments.
Experimenting with mitigation measures
Indeed, over the years, governments have experimented with numerous mitigation measures. In 2019, the Indian Railways launched “Plan Bee”, in which speakers broadcast the sound of bees at elephant crossings, to prevent the animals from crossing when trains are close. Such a system is in place along the Kanjikode-Madukkarai stretch, where the three elephants were killed on Friday.
However, forest guards patrolling railway tracks think elephants may have become accustomed to the sound of buzzing bees, according to a one report.
Researchers have suggested alternative measures, from limiting the operation of trains at night to using thermal sensors to detect elephant movement and warn drivers. But for now, conservationists’ focus is on the specific mitigation measures that Project Elephant’s Central Monitoring Committee is expected to fashion for the Kanjikode-Madukkarai stretch.
As Sinha wrote: “What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.”
Note: This article was updated at 2:13 pm on November 29, 2021, to state that the accidents occurred on line A, and not line B as stated earlier.