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
Interim project narrative report number: 1
Timeline of the present activity report: From 1st September 2011 to 31st December 2011
Since the early nineties the increased development of India's railways has brought with it an increase in the number of elephants killed by trains passing through forests. Simple but effective measures introduced by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and Elephant Family have prevented such accidents in key affected areas, but the death rate has continued to rise in other areas. Nineteen elephant were killed in 2010, the worst year on record, and with eleven deaths that we know about, last year still met the annual average. Thanks to the support of the Nando Peretti Foundation, Elephant Family and WTI have been able to extend their measures throughout India, as well as investigating new technologies, in the hope of fully overcoming this menace.
Mapping and developing site specific mitigation plan for accident prone areas throughout India
All accident prone areas and affected elephant habitats throughout the country have now been mapped and site-specific intervention plans have been developed. The most recent detailed surveys were undertaken in the states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to develop GIS (Geographical Information Systems) maps and action plans. These plans have since been submitted to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, for their information and approval.
In Assam, ecological surveys have also been carried out along the tracks in areas known for elephant movement, particularly in Goalapara Forest Division (FD), Guwahati Wildlife Division, Karbi Anglong West FD, and Nagoan South FD. These highlight the reasons for when and why elephants may be crossing the tracks (e.g. to natural feeding sites or crops) for further development of the plans, and for immediate remedial action, such as the clearing of vegetation and bushes - to improve train driver visibility - that was carried out along the tracks in several accident prone sites in both Guwahati Wildlife Division and Karbi Anglong FD.
Ecological surveys have also been carried out in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, specifically between Podanur and Palakkad, a stretch which has seen a number of accidents in recent years.
1. Regional workshops for senior railway and forest officials
On 28th December a meeting was held with the Ministry of Environment and Forests for WTI to present the findings from their report entitled "An Assessment of Elephant Mortalities due to train Accidents in India". The Inspector General of Forests and other senior Ministry officials agreed that the information provided would help in reducing elephant mortality along critical stretches of railway, particularly in the states of Uttarakhand, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Approval was granted to introduce the measures to West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand, states where Elephant Family and WTI have not previously been working.
The Ministry also agreed to support WTI in conducting workshops with the railway officials in each affected state. These will provide a further opportunity to discuss WTI's report at the field level, and will be held in 2012. To organise these meetings have been held in Assam with Railway and Forest officials, specifically in Guwahati, Karbi Anglong and Digboi Forest Divisions.
An inter-ministerial co- ordination meeting (between (the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Railways Department) has meanwhile been called to specifically address this issue early this year.
2. Field-level meetings for frontline forest and railway staff
A field-level meeting was organized for the officials and frontline staff of the Railway and Forest Departments in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This took place just prior to the current reporting period, with some follow-up thereafter. The meeting was attended by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Director of Project Elephant, as well as the Chief Engineer and other officials from Southern Railway. The decision was taken to undertake a rapid assessment of the accident prone areas in Tamil Nadu and assess the cost of measures suggested by WTI/Elephant Family.
3. Installing warning signs along the railway tracks in accident hotspots
The ecological surveys and GIS mapping have helped pinpoint key areas where elephants regularly cross railways, and where strategically-placed warning signs could save their lives by alerting drivers to slow down and be extra vigilant. Twenty warning signs were installed in Assam in 2011, and all old or damaged signs have been replaced.
The sites for warning signs have meanwhile been identified in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in consultation with both forest and railway officials, and the necessary paperwork is being sorted for their installation this year.
4. Increasing the understanding of train drivers and other railway staff
Workshops have been held with all frontline railway staff - train drivers, crew members et al. - to explain the objectives of the project and the steps that can be taken to avoid collisions with elephants (and other wildlife). Such workshops are also an opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the railway staff's own experiences and the difficulties that they face while averting accidents.
Such workshops have taken place in Assam - in Guwahati, New Guwahati, Bongaigaon and Lumding - and one has been arranged at Palakkad in Kerala. Railway staff are generally eager to do what they can, and recommendations that came from the workshops in Assam included the following: 1) train speeds should be reduced from 50km/h to 20km/h along critical stretches; 2) vegetation should be cleared on both sides of the tracks to improve visibility where necessary; 3) the usage of signboards should be properly monitored; 4) embankments should be leveled where they may trap elephants near the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary; 5) the flashlights used by night patrolling staff could be even more effective if they were colour-coded; 6) headlamps on trains could be improved to increase visibility in fog and rain during the wet season when elephant movement is high. All such recommendations help Elephant Family and WTI improve their plans for the future.
5. Training workshops in railway training schools
To have a longer lasting impact on the behaviour of train drivers and other railway staff, WTI are proposing to train new recruits in their training schools, with support from railway officials. Permission to do this has been granted by the Northern, Southern and North Frontier Railways for Uttarakhand, West Bengal, and Assam respectively. The training will take place this year.
6. Conducting night patrols along the railway tracks
During the field-level meetings, field kit has been distributed for night patrols in Palakkad (Kerala), Kheroni and Karbi Anglong (both Assam). This kit includes raincoats, flashlights, and reflective belts. Night patrols with six member teams from the Forest and Railway Departments and WTI have been undertaken along key stretches of railway in Assam, specifically in Guwahati Wildlife Division, Goalapara FD, Karbi Anglong FD and Digboi FD. Patrols have also begun more recently in the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, following an accident in that area. These prevented 58 collisions in Assam over the course of the reporting period alone.
Such patrols have proved one of the most effective measures for preventing accidents, as oncoming train drivers are directly alerted to the presence of elephants crossing the tracks in the immediate area. Patrols are now also up and running along two key stretches of track in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
7. Urging train passengers not to litter the tracks
Posters encouraging people not to discard their food waste from trains have been placed in railway stations in all the worst affected sites in Assam: ten were installed during the reporting period. This behavior is otherwise a majority contributing factor in attracting elephants (and other animals) to the tracks.
8. Measuring success, and monitoring activities and the wider situation, and
9. Development of long-term plans
Elephant Family and WTI have been analysing the relative impact of the various measures to determine which should be the focus for investment in future years, enabling us to "fine-tune" the project to deliver a greater impact over a wider area in a more cost-effective manner.
Nevertheless, many of the activities - particularly the night patrols - remain very labour-intensive despite their effectiveness. It would therefore be costly to continue rolling out the patrols to further areas and sustain them into the future. Both Elephant Family and WTI are therefore exploring other possible solutions, and a pilot project will soon be launched for an animal detection device that would provide an automated warning to oncoming train drivers when elephants are crossing. If this proves successful and not too costly then its installation throughout India would play a significant role in overcoming the threat trains pose to elephants once and for all.