Plea for urgent action to curb elephant deaths in Assam

New Delhi: Three days after the Indian Railways instructed its officials to reduce train speeds to 30 km per hour when crossing elephant corridors, a train engine killed three more elephants including a calf, yesterday. The incident occurred at about 5 am on 17 December between Kampur and Jamunamukh stations near Nagaon in Assam.

This is the seventh elephant death on the railway tracks of Assam this month. Just about two weeks ago, three elephants, including two pregnant elephants and a juvenile, were killed at Hojai in the Nagaon district of Assam on 4 December.  A day later, another elephant died after being hit by a train in Goalpara district.

The continuing apathy of various authorities towards this increasing death toll of elephants is hard to fathom. This alarming rise in the number of elephant deaths in the state  should be a wake-up call for  the Indian Railways, the Forest Department and the District Administration in the state, requiring immediate action to put an end to this continuous horror, now playing out in Assam at a regular pace.

The Assam government, Northeast Frontier Railways-Indian Railways, Project Elephant, and District Administrations need to make a concerted effort to immediately stop the tragic deaths.

According to the WTI publication, Right of Passage-Elephant Corridors of India, 41% of elephant corridors are in north-east India and 25% of the elephant corridors in Assam have railway lines passing through them.

As elephants search for food and water, they roam over a large extent of area through villages and towns, crossing railway lines and farms. Linear infrastructure development near and in corridors that elephants use to move from one forest area to another, force them to cross railway tracks where they end up getting hit by trains.

There are 27 identified elephant corridors under the Northeast Frontier Railway. However, elephant herds are also found to be now crossing railway tracks which are not earmarked as vulnerable.  In light of this, a fresh assessment needs to be done to identify new vulnerable railway sections and an early warning system needs to be put into place immediately to reduce these casualties.

WWF-India has been working in Assam for the last 15 years for the conservation of elephants and its habitat. Based on this experience, WWF India has the following recommendations for the government that should be put in place immediately:

The Railways, Forest Department, State Governments and District Administration need to take up joint efforts including patrolling to monitor elephant movement near railway tracks.

· Regular coordination meetings need to be held among the relevant stakeholders and a system needs to be put in place wherein near-real time information can be fed into the train movement system to warn locomotive drivers of probable elephant crossings.

·Speed limitations need to be put in places where railway tracks move through wildlife habitats. Most importantly, locomotive drivers need to strictly adhere to speed limitations when passing through stretches where elephants cross railway tracks. Strict action needs to be taken in case these rules are not followed.

There needs to be a focussed and continuous awareness programme for railway staff in wildlife areas about the ‘right of passage’ of wildlife in such areas.