On the wrong track

Indian Railways should consider changing their mascot Bholu, the elephant. It doesn’t make for good PR when death-by-train pretty much tops the macabre list of causes for elephant mortality.

Or, preferably, they can take the lead in undoing their dubious record.

As  2012 drew to a close,  on December 28, six elephants were crushed to death by a speeding train in Ganjam, Orissa––seven, if you account for the fact that one of the deceased was pregnant and her perfectly formed foetus was found among the gory remains. Barely a week later, four elephants  were mowed down on the  tracks cutting through the Buxa Tiger Reserve in Jaipalguri, North Bengal. This was followed by another shock, a fatal rail accident on 13th January taking the toll on two more elephants within the Rajaji National Park.

There is no doubting that these tragic deaths shook our conscience. The Minister of Environment & Forests stridently took up the matter with the Railways  minister and stressed the urgent imperative to prevent such terrible accidents from happening in future. A meeting was held with the Railways and an action agenda prepared.

This is all good, for it indicates the right intentions, but the worry is, will it translate into action? Will we learn our lesson and work towards providing safe passage for our elephants?

Subalaya in Ganjam is a  known vulnerable stretch, the December tragedy being the third such accident in a space of two years; yet the train thundered ahead knocking down six pachyderms at nearly 120kmph. A few days later,  a bear was killed on the same track, leaving her cub––injured, orphaned and doomed.

The killer track of Siliguri-Alipurduar track in North Bengal slays no less than five elephants––and scores of other animals––annually. In the past five years, 26 elephants have been hit by trains here, the worst incident being that of seven elephants in September 2010. Five had died on the spot, two others died a slow agonising death later. One among them was the matriarch, who had reportedly charged at the train, one imagines in pain and anger. There was much browbeating then too, but as we can see, nothing’s changed. Not really.

The Rajaji deaths came as a rude shock, the storm after a lull. Rajaji was the showcase success story. Twenty  elephants were killed here between 1987-2002, and following a particularly  shocking accident, a momentous effort was initiated by the forest department in coordination with the Railways and supported by NGOs, resulting in no mortality for eight years…  till blood spilled this month.

Even so, there are lessons to be learnt from the Rajaji example, and these must be adapted, followed and practiced in identified vulnerable stretches. Significantly, no less than 90 per cent of the deaths are at night, therefore night bans and slowing of trains after  dusk is imperative. The Railways, however, maintain that such a move would be too disruptive. Equally important are stringent patrolling, effective communication of elephant presence to Railways authorities and sensitising railway personnel at all levels.

But there is a larger issue: at the root of such fatal accidents is habitat loss and fragmentation. Railway lines criss-cross Protected Areas and slash crucial wildlife corridors. There are other hotspots for such fatal  accidents: Elephants, tigers, and other animals are routinely killed in Palamu in Jharkhand, near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, Dudhwa in Uttar Pradesh––to name just a few. Two of the above mentioned incidents took place inside national parks. The Chilla-Motichur corridor is all but blocked by canals, highways, an army ammunition dump and settlements and elephants are forced to cross over the intruding railway line at great risk. Similarly, the 168km long Siliguri-Alipurduar track cuts though PAs and corridors already fragmented by highways, tea gardens and urban sprawl.

Where do the elephants then go? If we are to grant the elephant––revered as Ganesha, celebrated as our National Heritage Animal––the basic right of passage, then it is important that we protect their habitats and corridors. Any new development must be regulated from the wildlife perspective, and some critical habitats must be ‘no-go’.  For existing tracks, it’s important to identify vulnerable stretches, and have site specific strategies to minimise fatal accidents.

Another disturbing trend is that poaching has peaked in the last few months. 2012 saw 88 tigers die. This is not a disaster per se, given that we have about 1,700 odd tigers, and this  represents a loss of about five per cent,  and such a mortality  rate-even if some deaths have gone unreported-is to be expected. Moreover,  new recruits will compensate. The worry is that about 30 wild tigers were poached, indicating that for all the focus and hoopla, our tigers are still insecure.

It isn’t just the tiger which is being targeted. The leopard took a major beating with over 135 poached in 2012, according  to the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Another casualty was the Great One-horned Rhinoceros, with over 20 slaughtered for their horn in the past year.

Such a peak indicates that for one, our protection systems are lacking, and another that demand has shot up––driven by rising affluence in the South Asian markets. Tragically, the impacts of such demands is taking a tremendous toll on endangered wildlife globally. In South Africa, 455 rhinos were killed in 2012––a 30 fold increase in poaching from 2005! Elephants are being relentlessly killed for ivory: Africa is, writes The New York Times, “in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter.” Poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants and elephant populations have crashed drastically. The main market is China, where economic boom has seen the rise of an affluent middle class who can now afford to buy ‘luxury’ items like ivory, or pay for tiger in their wine. It is not just the mega-fauna that is on the hitlist. Lesser known species such as the pangolin are facing a major crisis. They are being relentlessly targeted for their scales, considered curative in traditional medicine, and meat.

The reverberations of such a massive global market that is driving such slaughter should serve as a red alert for ‘source’ countries––one of the richest amongst which is India.

We must take the gravity and scale of wildlife crime on board.  There is an urgent need to enable, equip and strengthen the frontline force, deploy the Special Tiger Protection Force,  strengthen the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and developed wildlife forensics capabilities and other investigative skills to ensure better conviction rates.

Illustration courtesy: Rohan Chakravarty, greenhumour.blogspot.com/

article was first published in The Pioneer, January 30, 2013

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