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: 2
Timeline of the present activity report: From 1st January 2012 to 30th June 2012
Thanks to the ongoing support of the Nando Peretti Foundation, Elephant Family and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) have continued to extend simple measures to save elephants from being hit by trains throughout India. During the first half of 2012, night patrols along the tracks prevented 88 potential accidents in Assam alone. Elephant Family's Conservation and Campaigns team travelled to Assam in May to assess and verify progress, and visited the accident hotspot near the Deepar Beel Wildlife Sanctuary just two days after the night patrol team had successfully stopped a goods train while elephants were crossing, in such a near miss that the train even slightly touched one of the elephants.
Despite these efforts, the train menace to elephants continues to grow in India as railways are still being updated, and more, faster trains use the tracks. Furthermore, as the other main threat of habitat loss also grows, elephants are being forced out of their former range into new areas. This has seen them crossing train tracks at specific points not used before, and in doing so has created new accident hot spots.
While numerous accidents were averted in the first half of the year, there were still four elephant fatalities caused by trains in Assam alone, and a further three in Orissa State, where the project has yet to reach, but where there is clearly now a need.
Mapping and developing site-specific mitigation plan for accident-prone areas throughout India
Further to those carried out towards the end of 2011, field surveys have been undertaken by Elephant Family-WTI field officers between Goalpara and Digboi in Assam, to develop an even better picture of the patterns of elephant movements, in the hope of pre-empting what may otherwise become accident hotspots. Discussions with those living and working along the tracks during these surveys have contributed greatly to the data being collected on animal movements from direct and indirect signs of elephants. Night patrolling and the training of train drivers can both be enhanced with this extra information.
Questionnaires were completed in ten villages alongside the railway lines and adjacent to the forest in Tamil Nadu, and in seven such villages in Kerala, to get a similar idea of elephant movement and the extent to which the communities may also be suffering from the presence of elephants.
Regional workshops for senior railway and forest officials
WTI organised and facilitated two workshops in Assam, in Diphu in Karbi Anglong District on 13th March, and in Deepar Beel, Guwahati District - one of the most critical areas of elephant mortality along the tracks - the following day. These were both attended by senior engineers and officials from the Northeast Frontier Railway, as well as senior forest officials and officers. With extra input from local wildlife experts, these have improved the coordination of the measures undertaken.
Key outcomes and recommendations from these workshops were as follows:
- Vegetation is to be cleared alongside tracks in critical sections where elephant movement is high, to help train drivers see animals crossing more clearly;
- Joint night patrolling between the Railway and Forest Departments and Elephant Family-WTI began in April along newly identified critical sections of track;
- The local police agreed to increase their patrols in areas where local insurgents have hampered the night patrolling team;
- More information on elephant movement is to be shared among the relevant stakeholders;
- It was mutually agreed that train drivers must follow the strict speed restrictions along critical sections;
- It was confirmed that warning signs along the tracks do act as useful constant reminders for train drivers, and sites for new signs were identified;
- Railway officials agreed that steep concrete walls lining embankments could be demolished to prevent them trapping elephants, and asked the Forest Department to approach the Ministry of Environment and Forests for funds to do so;
- Arrangements are to be made to stop jhum (slash-and-burn) and paddy cultivation close to the railway tracks;
- Further checks and controls are to be put in place to stop waste being thrown onto the tracks; and
- Advice is to be given to villagers along the tracks to help them monitor elephant movement and behave appropriately in the presence of elephants.
On 16th March, a regional workshop was organised for senior railway and forest officials of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, at Palakkad in Kerala. The outcomes and recommendations from this workshop reflect the very different context of the problem in this part of India:
- A joint inspection by Forest, Railway and Elephant Family-WTI staff is to be carried out to confirm elephant movement along the "B Line" between Kerala and Tamil Nadu;
- Measures are to be introduced to improve the habitat (with a focus on providing more water and food plants) inside reserve forests of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, to reduce movement closer to tracks;
- The feasibility of diverting or blocking elephant movement with suitable barriers along the B Line is to be explored;
- Short-term measures are to continue along the B Line until a permanent solution is in place; and
- A joint team of senior forest and railway officials is to form to monitor and strengthen present efforts and develop plans.
A meeting was held on 27th June in Motichur, Uttarakhand to allow senior railways and forest officials to interact with WTI and discuss ways of strengthening measures there to maintain the exceptional standard of no mortality along the tracks since the project began ten years ago.
Field-level meetings for frontline forest and railway staff
In January, a meeting was held with the stationmaster of Motichur Railway Station in Uttarakhand, about the night patrols along critical sections. He was concerned about the length of time trains are cautioned to slow down, as this has been leading to delays in the timetables. It was agreed that the patrol staff would inform the stationmaster once elephants had passed so that the precaution can be lifted.
Since measures to prevent accidents have been introduced more recently to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, field level meetings with both railway and forest officials were carried out on a regular basis for sharing information, coordinating action and monitoring progress.
On 7th May, a meeting was held between Kerala forest and railway officials, following a request from the latter to remove speed restrictions between Kottekad and Kanjikode railway stations. Based on WTI and Elephant Family's work and recommendations, a speed restriction had been imposed along the entire stretch from Walayar to Kanjikode. The railways officials were of the opinion that speed limits could be removed along straight stretches with good visibility. The potential and the possible implications of doing so were therefore investigated by a joint team from WTI, the railways and forest department, but it was felt that further information is still required before a final decision can be made.
Installing warning signs along the railway tracks in accident hotspots
No further warning signs have been installed during the first half of the year. But to improve visibility for train drivers, vegetation has been cleared along critical sections of track, particularly at Deepar Beel and at Dudhnoi, both critical areas of elephant movement in Assam.
Increasing the understanding of train drivers and other railway staff
Three awareness workshops were held for train drivers and guards in Assam, to alert them to the importance of protecting wild animals and observing necessary precautions to avert any accidents. Two were held in March, and one in May, for 46 participants overall. Advice was given on paying attention to blind curves and other aspects that reduce visibility, the times when elephants are most likely to cross the tracks, and the effects of embankments and other steep gradients that can prevent elephants fleeing in time. Train drivers were asked to share their experiences and the difficulties they face while trying to avoid hitting animals, especially elephants. They reported problems of detecting elephants due to their colour and the poor strength of the train headlights. There was great eagerness to protect elephants, and hearing success stories from other parts of the country provided great motivation. This included screening the documentary "On the Right Track", which was made following the success of the project in Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, which has eliminated elephant fatalities along the tracks since 2002.
Points raised and recommended as outcomes from these meetings included:
- Train speeds should be reduced from 50kmh to 20kmh along critical sections;
- Vegetation should be cleared from both sides of the tracks to improve visibility (especially along the Krishnai-Dudhnoi Stretch;
- Crossing points that elephants regularly use should be cleared and leveled to make it easier for them to cross quickly;
- Attention should be paid to signboards and their condition monitored;
- Embankments should be levelled at Deepar Beel;
- Colour-coded search lights could help night patrols communicate the movement of elephants to train drivers more effectively (in non insurgency areas);
- Train headlamps should be improved to increase visibility, especially during the rainy season when elephant movement is high; and
- Greater records are to be kept of accidents averted to improve monitoring of the measures and the situation, and so the good efforts of those involved can be duly acknowledged.
On 8th May and 15th June, similar workshops were held in Palakkad, Kerala, for 20 train drivers, guards and stationmasters in total, from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While the train drivers again reported problems with the strength of their headlights, they also reported problems with ineffective wipers during the rainy season. As well as them recommending the clearance of vegetation and the removal of an old fence that restricts elephant movement, the workshops also threw up a number of other suggestions. The participants wondered, for example, whether the train carriages could be soundproofed so that the drivers could continuously sound their horns, or whether an early detection system could be put in place to pick up elephant movement sooner (something that Elephant Family and WTI are looking into). They likewise wondered whether the elephants' movements could be monitored by radio collar, something which would unfortunately prove very costly and time- consuming to be effective at the level required. Other proposals included lighting the entire stretch of critical track, and collecting funds from the passengers for elephant conservation!
Training workshops in railway training schools
The training of new recruits in the railway training schools in Uttarakhand, West Bengal, and Assam is to begin in the latter half of 2012.
Conducting night patrols along the railway tracks
Night patrols along the tracks run by WTI-Elephant Family staff together with frontline forest and railway staff have proved one of the most effective measures at preventing potential accidents along the tracks, or certainly one of the easiest to measure. These are conducted in known areas of elephant movement (either seasonal or annual). The role of the patrolling staff is to intervene directly where possible, by chasing the elephants from the track as a train approaches, while also passing the information to the closest railway station, so that the officials can guide the train drivers to proceed with caution when elephants have been spotted.
Between January and June, 88 potential accidents were averted in Assam thanks to these night patrols. Twenty-seven of these were along the notorious stretch alongside the Deepar Beel Wildlife Sanctuary, while a further 30 were prevented along the Diphu-Daldali stretch and 23 along the next stretch between Daldali and Dansiri.
In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, night patrols have focussed on the critical stretch from Walayar to Kanjikode. These complement the patrols that the railways department already conducts to monitor the track for mudslides and rockfalls, as well as elephant movement. The team walks along the B Line from 6:30pm to 6:00am the following morning. Fortunately, just the one herd was detected near the tracks towards the end of June and rain drivers alerted to take caution.
In Uttarakhand, night patrols were conduced along an 18km stretch of track between 6pm and 6am every day. Over the six-month period, 391 elephants were spotted along the tracks on 97 occasions, and train drivers alerted.
Urging train passengers not to litter the tracks
Posters encouraging people not to discard their food waste from trains have remained in place. Patrols along the tracks have found less waste along the tracks than before, and no waste at all was found along the Deepar Beel stretch when the team was clearing the vegetation.
Measuring success, and monitoring activities and the wider situation
The regional workshops and field-level meetings have provided opportunities for gathering feedback on the relative success of the various measures. While the prevention of potential accidents is an easily verifiable indicator of the success of the night patrols, the impact of other measures is harder to measure. However, the train drivers confirm that the warning signs along the tracks are an important, and constant, reminder of the need to slow down at critical points. If so, these are more cost-effective and sustainable than having to maintain the night patrols.
Significantly reduced elephant mortality along the tracks is the ultimate indicator of project success. Frustratingly the number of annual deaths has remained constant at an average of ten deaths per year, other than in 2010 when 19 deaths was exceptionally high. However, this is against a backdrop of increasingly faster trains, more railways and elephant movement in areas that have not experienced it before. Where the project has been active, elephant mortality has been reduced significantly.