Saving Elephants on India’s Railways
Project location: INDIA, Uttarakhand, Assam, Kerala ,Tamil Nadu States
Project start date: June 2011 - Project end date: November 2012
Project number: 2011-22
Beneficiary: Elephant Family
2010 was the worst year on record for elephants being killed by trains on India's railways, and the issue has become one of the most serious conservation issues for Asian elephants. From 2002 onwards, a pilot project in Rajaji National Park showed how straightforward measures prevented trains colliding with elephants as they crossed the tracks. A subsequent partnership between Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India has successfully replicated these measures in Assam State, India, over the past two years, although the crisis is such that a great deal more investment is required.
This project, which received a grant from the Nanado Peretti Foundation, is to be implemented in collaboration with both the Indian Forest Department and the Railways Department, who have invited the Wildlife Trust of India to facilitate the project on their behalf. The project also builds on consultative workshops in the southern Indian States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the outcomes of which have formed the basis of this proposal.
Based on this network and experience, as well as having the skills and knowledge that are essential for working throughout India, both Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India are best placed to implement the successful measures in the other worst affected regions of India. Their intervention is required before the growth of the railways and the concomitant deaths of elephants thereon escalate out of all control.
The project aims to achieve a significant reduction in elephant mortality due to train hits in some of the worst affected states: Uttarakhand, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Ensuring that India's development is not incompatible with its desire to protect what they recently declared a "National Heritage Animal" should appeal to the Nando Peretti Foundation, with its stated interest in the Environment and Nature.
As deaths of elephants on India's railways have been increasing, so too has the attention of media on this issue. It has now become one of the most significant threats to the future survival of elephants in India, as well as one of the thorniest current issues for the Indian government. Overcoming this issue with the support of the Nando Peretti Foundation would have a significant impact not only on the conservation of one of India's greatest icons, but also on the Indian government's efforts to save it, with far-reaching ramifications for its conservation throughout the country.
Tackling the problem involves some relatively straightforward, low-technology, tried-and-tested measures along the railways. Over a twelve-month period the following nine activities are central to fulfilling the project's overall objective:
1. Regional workshops for senior railway and forest officials
For the project to succeed, and furthermore to be sustainable, greater cooperation is needed between the Railway and Forest Departments of the Indian government - who are often in regular opposition to each other - and each must have a sufficient stake in the project. Furthermore, certain activities require a high level of State investment that is beyond the scope of Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India to provide, but for which funds have been earmarked by the State. These include the levelling of steep embankments to provide space along the railway track, as already mentioned, as well as fencing certain critical sections of track, and in some cases even constructing under- or overpasses so that animals do not physically have to cross the track.
Both Departments are highly supportive of the project, and have a close working relationship with the Wildlife Trust of India, and so the first step towards securing and planning all the above is through regional workshops with their respective officials. Three such regional meetings, one for each region, will therefore be organised between: the Assam Forest Department and the North Eastern Frontier Railway; the Uttarakhand Forest Department and the Northern Railway; and the Kerala and Tamil Nadu Forest Departments and the Southern Railway.
2. Field-level meetings for frontline forest and railway staff
Having planned the overall strategy and outlined the key activities with the senior officials, the next step is to then help coordinate and manage the actual implementation of the measures with the staff that work on the frontline of the problem, in the forests and along the railways. This requires regular meetings in all affected areas. Five will be planned for Assam, two for Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and one for Uttarakhand.
3. Installing warning signs along the railway tracks in accident hotspots
Warning signs installed alongside the tracks in areas that are known to present a high risk of a collision with elephants act as constant reminders to alert train drivers to the elephants' potential presence. As a result the drivers reduce their speed and are extra vigilant. Fourteen will be put in optimum locations in Tamil Nadu and Kerala (with sufficient having already been installed in Assam and Uttarakhand under previous pilot projects).
4. Increasing the understanding of train drivers and other railway staff
One of the big problems that the Wildlife Trust of India has identified is a lack of knowledge about why, when and where elephants may cross the tracks, and how their actions of slowing down and being extra vigilant could make all the difference: all too often it is reported that an elephant has been killed due to a train driver exceeding the legal speed limit, for which he or she can be prosecuted. The stationmasters and guards should also be involved to support the drivers and help with the enforcement of the regulations.
Workshops to highlight these issues to the train drivers and other railway staff will therefore be organised at fourteen train stations that are found in the worst affected areas: eight in Assam, four in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and two in Uttarakhand.
5. Training workshops in railway training schools
In addition to alerting those currently working on the railways, a significant positive effect will also be had by providing training on the issues to the future new recruits in their training schools. It is proposed that the railway officials provide the training, as this will also serve to reinforce their understanding of the issues, as well as putting in place a system that will work well into the future.
6. Conducting night patrols along the railway tracks
Measuring the effectiveness of the different measures to date has shown that night patrols along the tracks are one of the most successful measures to avert collisions between trains and elephants. These are conducted by a six-member team, with two members each from the Forest and Railway Departments, and the Wildlife Trust of India, who check for animals crossing the tracks in key identified areas, and alert train drivers when necessary with large searchlights. Such night patrols will be conducted at eight sites in Assam, three in Uttarakhand, and two in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
7. Urging train passengers not to litter the tracks
Food waste discarded by train caterers and passengers is one of the major factors that can actually attract various wild animals (not just elephants) to railway tracks. Two hundred posters will therefore be placed inside train carriages with the collaboration of the Railways Department, to urge passengers not to throw their waste out of the windows.
8. Measuring success, and monitoring activities and the wider situation
Three field officers will be recruited to help the project coordinator in monitoring the various activities, ensuring their correct implementation and assessing their success. This monitoring extends to continually checking the accident hotspots and their wider surroundings for signs of seasonal elephant movements, and any changes in the environment that could have an effect.
Beyond the immediate scope of the proposed project, Elephant Family is also looking to commission further research into the relative success of the different initiatives, as well as into a variety of new technologies or approaches that are being, or could be, developed to help in this situation. Such technologies to be considered include warning systems that will either emit a very low frequency warning sound to alert elephants near railway tracks to an oncoming train, or alternatively to reflect light into the forest to a similar end, as used elsewhere to good effect for other animals.
9. Development of long-term plans
As mentioned under the first activity, some of the activities require a high level of state investment and involvement, and so to secure this following the regional workshops, the Wildlife Trust of India will continue to liaise with and lobby the Railway Board, the Ministry of Forests and Environment, and the soon to be formed National Elephant Conservation Authority. This lobbying will also extend to having appropriate legislation developed and enforced to ensure that those responsible for elephant deaths on the railways are prosecuted - such as train drivers breaking the speed limit - and also that new railways are planned away from key elephant habitats wherever possible.
The key anticipated outcome of the project will be a significant reduction in the number of elephants killed along India's railways. The final toll of 19 last year was exceptional; but still, the annual average is approximately ten over the past decade, up from five over the previous decade.
Further anticipated outcomes include:
- a greater understanding of underlying factors that may create an accident hotspot, including seasonal movements of elephants;
- increased levels of State intervention in protecting elephants along railways, resulting in steep embankments being leveled, fencing being installed, and in some cases under- or overpasses being created;
- an enhanced understanding of the issues and actions that can be taken among key railway staff, and those training to be railway staff;
- a greater understanding of the problem among train passengers, and a significant reduction in the waste that they discard along the tracks, thanks to the intervention of railway staff and posters in train carriages; and
- an enhanced level of understanding and cooperation between the Forest and Railway Departments, resulting in long-term, sustainable plans being made to continue implementing the measures into the future.
While the proposed project targets the four worst affected states in India of Assam, Uttarakhand, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the involvement of the Railway Board, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the National Elephant Conservation Authority, will ensure that the most successful and straightforward measures can be replicated throughout the country wherever there is the danger of elephants, or indeed any other animals, being struck by trains.
The project will also provide a model that can be easily replicated in other countries, and the key reports and recommendations of the project will be circulated to this end.
Elephant Family is the leading UK charity dedicated solely and exclusively to saving the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild. Registered in 2002, it has serious aspirations of becoming the global leader in Asian elephant conservation, to be achieved by developing long-term strategic alliances with a number of partner organisations, with projects that demonstrate how humans and elephants can co-exist, and how elephant landscapes - some of the largest units of conservation there are - can be permanently secured. With elephants as the "creative power of nature", Elephant Family's aim is to have a substantial and lasting impact on biodiversity conservation, using them as flagship species.
Throughout Asia and beyond, Elephant Family's four key programme objectives are:
1. To mobilise public concern through a mass campaign in Asia and the West about the survival of the Asian elephant;
2. To lobby governments to take action using the leverage of public campaigns;
3. To forge strategic alliances with proven Asian partner organisations for the development of ten large-scale landscape conservation projects and new approaches to conservation; and
4. To promote education, training and research in multi-disciplinary approaches that can improve the level of tolerance between people and elephants.