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

Timeline of the present activity report: From 1st July 2012 to 31st December 2012


With the growth of India's economy, new and faster trains are increasingly cutting through prime elephant habitat, and in the past twenty years approximately 200 elephants have been struck and killed by them. It is now one of the major causes of unnatural elephant mortality within India.

With the support of the Nando Peretti Foundation, Elephant Family has been able to invest in effective measures to significantly reduce the threat of trains striking elephants. These include the introduction of "go-slow" zones and warning signs in accident hotspots, the clearance of shrubbery around blind spots, workshops for train drivers, and running night patrols to alert drivers to elephants in the area. The grant has enabled Elephant Family - in partnership with the Wildlife Trust of India - to fully extend these measures to the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and to reinforce them in Assam and Uttarakhand: to good effect. In Assam, night patrols were able to prevent 228 potential accidents over the course of 2012, 140 during the second half of the year - the grant-reporting period.

Elephant mortality from train collisions was significantly lower than average in the areas covered by the project. Nevertheless, new accident hotspots keep emerging that need attention. Three elephants were killed by trains in separate incidents in July, August and September in Assam, in areas away from where the project is being implemented. Furthermore, at the very end of 2012 and into 2013, there was a spate of elephant killings along India's railways, which threw the issue under the spotlight again. On 30th December, the Chennai-bound Coromondal Superfast Express, travelling at 110Kmh, struck five elephants in Ganjam District, Odisha. One of the females was heavily pregnant, and her foetus was expelled on impact. Just one week later, three elephants were killed and two calves seriously injured by the speeding Guwahati-bound Jhaja Express within the Buxa Tiger Reserve landscape of West Bengal. On 13th January, yet another speeding train collided with elephants, this time in Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, killing one female on impact, and fatally injuring another who was pregnant. Until then the introduction of the measures listed above, and through the implementation of the grant, had eliminated elephant fatalities on the tracks through the park since 2002.

There have been further accidents since, and in every case the trains were exceeding the speed limits in those areas, and this has been the main contributing factor to the accidents. Elephant Family's experience and investment in overcoming the problem - supported considerably by the Nando Peretti Foundation - put us in a strong position to lobby the Indian government, and the Railways Department in particular, to take more action on this issue. A letter-writing campaign saw more than 1,500 Elephant Family supporters emailing a letter to this effect to the Minister of Railways in early 2013.

Mapping and developing site-specific mitigation plan for accident-prone areas throughout India

As well as patrolling the tracks, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala the project team has investigated elephant movement and levels of human-elephant conflict in villages along the railways to understand the movements of elephants better. They have then consulted the railways and forest departments to plan their interventions most effectively.

In the process they identified the stretch between Yettimadai and Walayar Railway Station as being particularly critical, as much of the track runs through the forest in an area of high elephant movement, with food-plants, shelter and water on both sides. Likewise, the stretch between Walayar and Kanjikode is also a potential accident hotspot, as there are many blind corners along the track, where collisions between trains and elephants have happened in the past. However, since there are no major water bodies, nor good quality vegetation along this stretch, there's usually only elephant presence during the rainy season. The stretch on the other side, from Kanjikode to Kottekad Railway Station is not currently thought to pose a big problem, but elephants have started venturing towards paddyfields and the Koraiyaru River in this area, so some attention is still needed here.

The loss of crops to elephants indicates that most of the area is visited between July and December, during the monsoons when cultivation is undertaken. The seasonality of crop loss correlates with reports of past accidents, which have occurred between June to December, peaking between July and November.

Regional workshops for senior railway and forest officials

The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has continued to discuss the issue of trains striking elephants with the Director of Project Elephant, within the Ministry of Environment and Forest. As well as stressing the need for speed restrictions in critical areas and their enforcement, they have also discussed the need for an animal detection system along the railways to help overcome the problem. Elephant Family and WTI are investigating such technologies and are looking to run some trials in their future strategies.


Field-level meetings for frontline forest and railway staff

Regular meetings with forest and railway staff working in accident-prone areas allow the field teams to collect additional information on elephant movement, discuss suggestions on how to prevent accidents, and plan coordinated action between all concerned to prevent accidents.

On 31st July the Kerala team met with railway and forest personnel at Walayar Deer Park. As a result of the discussion, plans were made to clear bushes within 50m of the track to improve visibility, especially around blind curves. Further raincoats and searchlights were requested by patrol staff. Staff shortages made the Forest Department reluctant to commit personnel to the night patrols, although eventually the range officer agreed to provide two watchers.

In Assam, a meeting for frontline forest and railway staff was held on 28th November, in Diphu, Karbi Anglong District, with a further divisional level meeting, organised by the DFO of Kamrup East Division on 21st December.

3. Installing warning signs along the railway tracks in accident hotspots

In the final quarter of the year, 22 warning signs were produced, following permission and approval of the design from the Railways Department. Nine of these are to be erected in Kerala and 13 in Tamil Nadu to provide a permanent reminder to train drivers to slow down and sound their horns at known crossing points for elephants.

To improve visibility for train drivers vegetation needs to be cleared routinely along the tracks, especially along curves and past embankments. This was carried out in Rajaji National Park, and also along critical stretches in Assam - Deepar Beel, Goalpara, Panbari, Diphu to Dhansiri and Khatkhati area - in October and November.

4. Increasing the understanding of train drivers and other railway staff

Workshops are held to alert train drivers, guards and stationmasters to the causes behind collisions with accidents, and inform them of elephant behaviour and precautions to be taken in the event of an emergency.

In Kerala, workshops were held on 16th August at Palakkad Railway Running Room and on 13th December at Shornur Railway Running Room, with 14 drivers, guards and inspectors attending each session.

In Uttarakhand, a workshop was held in the crew lobby of Dehradun Railway Station on 2nd Oct 2012. This was attended by senior forest officials of Rajaji National Park, as well as senior railway staff, train drivers, assistant drivers and guards.

Three workshops were held in Assam over the period: on 20th September in the Crew Lobby, Guwahati, attended by 30 drivers and guards; on 25th September in the Crew Lobby, Lumding for 35 drivers and guards; and on 18th December in the Crew Lobby, Mariyani for 40 drivers, guards and senior officials.

As well as explaining the seasonal patterns of elephant movement in all workshops, participants were informed of the do's and don'ts while passing through critical stretches, and what needs to be done on seeing elephants. Train drivers also got to share their experiences, and made suggestions for preventing accidents. In Kerala they recommended measures to improve visibility - such as better headlights and clearing shrubbery - levelling embankments, and adhering to speed limits; all things that are either carried out or called for through the project. They also suggested that trains be fitted with a device to emit a continuous sound on particular stretches to deter elephants from the tracks, or something that can detect animals on the tracks and alert the driver, taking a slightly different approach to the use of technology to current investigations.

In Assam, the train drivers pointed out that they also had problems with other animals crossing the tracks, including cattle. They suggested that raising awareness among villagers of the Lamsakhang and Habaipur areas would help the drivers avoid accidents, if the villagers can alert them to the presence of elephants and other animals, much as the night patrols do. Wider awareness campaigns would help to this end, and are planned for 2013.

In the Mariyani workshop, drivers called for clearer instructions on the speed restrictions at certain critical points. They also suggested that the speed should not be more than 30kmh in these areas: beyond this the emergency breaking system could derail the train.

5. Training workshops in railway training schools

The training of new recruits to the railway training schools in Uttarakhand, West Bengal, and Assam had been due for the latter half of 2012. Although the awareness workhops were successfully delivered in these states, permission to provide such instruction within the training schools got caught up in bureaucracy and had not been given by the end of 2012: drivers receive specialised training, and there is reluctance from the training schools to deviate from the curriculum. Permission is being pursued and the team is optimistic that they can carry out the training in 2013.

6. Conducting night patrols along the railway tracks

Night patrols along the tracks, to warn oncoming drivers of elephants in the area, remain one of the most effective ways of preventing accidents. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the patrols - comprising Elephant Family-WTI, railway and forest staff - patrolled the entire critical stretch of the track every night throughout June to December. The railway staff are also charged with keeping the tracks free from boulders, branches or other things that may have fallen onto the track, which they can do during the patrols.

Over the reporting period, elephants were encountered along the tracks on 24 different occasions. Most of the time it was lone tuskers that were crossing, but on one occasion it was a herd of at least 14 elephants. Most of the elephants crossed the track between 8pm and 2am. On three of the occasions the elephants were seen when a train was due to pass. Messages were therefore passed to the stationmaster, who passed on the message to the train drivers. Elephants were meanwhile driven away from the track on eight occasions.

Despite these efforts, on 30th October, at about 5:30pm, one solitary bull came onto the tracks at a time when trains were due to pass. The driver of the 22609 local passenger train - aware that this is a critical stretch - saw the elephants from a distance, applied the emergency brake, and was able to stop the train. One end of the engine touched the back of the elephants as it was about to stop. The driver informed the stationmaster about the incident, and the patrolling team was able to track the elephant that evening, and monitored it for almost five days to check that it was totally healthy and injured.

In Uttarakhand, three stretches of track that run for 18km in total though Rajaji National Park are monitored from 6:00pm to 6:00am every night. From August to December a total of 173 elephants were reported close to the track on 50 occasions, and were driven away from the railway tracks by the patrols. As well as having flashlights, they are also equipped with a sound-making device that deters elephants. Caution orders were also passed to the train drivers via the stationmaster.

In Assam, night patrolling was carried out along 5 critical stretches, 3 throughout the year, and 2 on a seasonal basis (October-December). In response to the individual killings of elephants in July, August and September, patrols were added in two further areas on a seasonal basis. Across all seven sections 140 potential accidents were averted over the reporting period, bringing the overall total for the year to 228 accidents averted in Assam. As well as conducting the night patrols, and in response to the drivers' suggestions, the Elephant Family-WTI patrol staff also met with local villagers in areas of high human-elephant conflict, especially in Goalpara and Nagaon South Divisions, to find out more about elephant movement and seek community support to provide information when elephants are in the area.

7. Urging train passengers not to litter the tracks

Railway passengers discarding food waste from trains can attract animals to the tracks and increase the risk of accidents. Posters in railway carriages and stations in Uttarakhand and Assam have proved effective at reducing this, and have remained in place. The intention was to have similar in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but because permission to display the posters has to come from numerous different railways departments, this had still not been received by the end of 2012. This will therefore be pursued in 2013.

8. Measuring success, and monitoring activities and the wider situation.

The workshops and regular meetings with frontline railway and forest staff are also used to gather feedback on all of the measures being taken, and to make amendments where necessary.

The ultimate measure of success is significantly reduced elephant mortality - down to zero mortality in many areas - along the stretches where the project is working. This is against a backdrop of otherwise rising elephant mortality along India's railways as faster trains are directed through more areas of elephant habitat. Unofficial figures report that 20 elephants were killed in 2012, almost twice the average of the past ten years.

In 2013 Elephant Family and WTI will do a critical analysis of the relative impact of each of the measures deployed under their project. This will determine which would be the best to have replicated nationwide in the most cost-effective manner, so that elephant mortality can be brought down throughout India.

9. Development of long-term plans

Rising elephant mortality along India's railways needs to be reduced by the replication of the many measures implemented under this grant, or at least the most effective of them. Elephant Family and WTI plan to sustain their efforts for the foreseeable future, and to extend them further still where they are able to, and where they are badly needed. However, undertaking such measures in further areas significantly increases the costs of the initiative, to levels that are difficult to sustain. Both Elephant Family and WTI are therefore using their valuable experience to put pressure on the Indian government to adopt many of the measures itself. In the meantime, further approaches, including the use of technology - such as animal detection systems - are also being explored to develop a more cost-effective long-term strategy.

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