For 10 yrs, no elephant deaths in Rajaji because of trains

DEHRADUN: The loss of wildlife after being hit by trains is a continuing problem across the country. At Rajaji Tiger Reserve, though, there is one unique achievement that could serve as an example for authorities elsewhere - for almost 10 years between April 2002 and December 2012, there were no elephant deaths in this area. This was made possible by a scientific study, followed up by planned mitigation efforts.

At least 220 elephants died in train hits across the country since 1987. Between 1987 and 2002, 20 elephants and several other wild animals died in several train accidents on tracks that pass through the core area of RTR.

Considering the magnitude of the problem in RTR, the state forest department and Northern Railway undertook a scientific study. This was followed by the implementation of certain mitigation measures that showed enormous impact. There was zero mortality of elephants because of trains between April 2002 and December 2012. In 2013, however, two elephants died because of rail accidents.

"Some steep embankments in high-risk areas were levelled. There was also joint night patrolling by rail and forest staff, and signs were placed in accident-prone areas. Vegetation along the tracks was cleared, and water bodies were improved so that elephants did not have to go to the accident-prone areas. A wireless system was set up to exchange information about elephant sightings, and the station master and the loco pilots were in constant touch," RTR director Neena Grewal said.

Rajiv Mehta, honorary wildlife warden of Rajaji, said that in a developing country like India, where expansion of railways and roadways is inevitable, such accidents pose an additional threat to elephant population. He said that there is already mortality of elephants caused by large scale degradation of their habitats, fragmentation of the lands they inhabit and rising conflict with humans. Besides endangering elephants, accidents in which elephants were involved also compromised passenger safety of the railways, he said.

RTR is spread across 820.42 sq km in the Shivalik ranges of the Himalayan foothills in Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri Garhwal districts of Uttarakhand. A railway track of the Haridwar-Dehradun section passes more than 18 km of forest through three ranges of the reserve, at Haridwar, Motichur and Kansrao.

SP Subudhi, former RTR director, said, "Visibility reduces between 6 pm and 6 am - this time is crucial. In winter, fog hampers visibility. Train drivers cannot clearly see elephants or wild animals on the track. Railway staff would also patrol the area with the forest team from 2002-07. That stopped happening so frequently, with the shortage of staff. Such joint patrolling should be started. Food items and litter thrown by railway caterers on tracks also could attract animals. Speed is another reason for high elephant mortality. In January 2013, in one accident only, some 8 elephants died in Orissa as the train was running at a speed of 110 km/per hour. In RTR, the speed limit is 50 km/hour."

AK Singh, team leader of Terai Arc Landscape, said, "Approximately 4.3 km track area in RNP is highly accident-prone. Around 50% of elephant deaths and all accident cases after 1998 have been recorded from this area. This is because of sharp turnings, embankments and elevated track. Since there is no forest area on the eastern side of this track, this section should be fenced using old scrap rail. This will be a kind of permanent solution to the elephant mortality in this area. There is no ecological need for the elephants and other animals to cross the railway track."

He suggested that underpasses and overbridges be planned at critical points to avoid accidents involving elephants, and said foliage should be cleared to 30-foot width on both sides of the track to improve visibility for loco-pilots. In areas where the track is elevated, elephants take time crossing these, he explained, exposing themselves to risk.

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