The herd of elephants foraging in the forests had no idea of the danger that lay ahead as an express train sped from Chennai to Kolkata last December.
At a railway station in Ganjam, a seaside district in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, five elephants trying to cross the tracks were either oblivious of the speeding Coromondel Express or had little time to turn back as the train tore through the night fog.
The giant mass of steel and iron mauled the elephants as they attempted to cross the tracks. What made the scene more revolting was the discovery of the mangled remains of an unborn elephant foetus thrown several metres from its dead mother’s womb after the collision.
“It was tragic and violent. I am anguished by this particular incident, because it is a common place for elephant crossing and forest personnel had warned railway officials well in advance,” India’s minister for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, wrote to the federal railway minister a week after the tragedy. “The situation now has become untenable.”
As Orissa’s forest and wildlife authorities and the Indian Railways bickered over who was responsible for the deaths, two other recent tragedies highlighted the dangers faced everyday by elephants in India.
On January 5, three elephants were mowed down by a speeding passenger train in West Bengal, while a nine-year-old male elephant was killed and another female elephant was injured by a train passing through Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand on January 14.
Though they were declared India’s national heritage animal in 2011, rapid industrialisation, mining and expanding human settlement have greatly diminished the habitat of the country’s roughly 25,000 remaining elephants.
“Elephants are not aggressive animals. But increasing conflict with humans is making them more and more aggressive.”
– Belinda Wright, president of Wildlife Protection Society of India
Crossing the railway tracks is just one of the hazards faced by the long-ranging animals. Their survival is also threatened by incessant poaching, poisoning by farmers, and electrocution – accidental or otherwise.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) statistics, 1,177 elephant deaths were reported between 1999 and 2009.
Of these, 434 elephants died of electrocution and 106 in train accidents.
“The biggest threat faced by elephants in India is its shrinking habitat. The elephants are vegetarians and so they need to forage for miles for food,” said Belinda Wright, president of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
“As the elephants move out of their habitat to human habitations, it leads to eventual conflict between man and animal. Elephants are not aggressive animals. But increasing conflict with humans is making them more and more aggressive,” she noted.
Marauding elephants kill about 300 people every year as they march into villages in search of food.
In September last year, Natarajan told the National Board of Wildlife that the government would amend the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 to provide legal cover for elephant corridors, but this has yet to happen.
A task force appointed by the MoEF in 2011 said the geographic range of the elephants has dwindled by 70 percent since the 1960s.
According to government statistics, 318 elephants have been electrocuted in India between 2003 and 2012 – either due to sagging power lines or traps set by poachers or farmers anxious about elephants raiding their crops.
“Having elephant corridors means nothing if the same have highways, roads and railway tracks running through them.”
– Ranjit Patnaik, wildlife expert
The state of Orissa has become the biggest graveyard for the animal in India, and has seen a dramatic decline in the population in recent years. In April and May 2010, at least 14 elephants in Orissa’s Similipal Tiger Reserve were killed by poachers using poisoned arrows or gunshots.
Between 2008 and 2011, 57 of India’s 121 cases of elephant poaching occurred in Orissa.
A probe by the National Tiger Conservation Authority later found that “there was a concerted effort to destroy the remains of the elephant carcasses, which amounts to destruction of evidence without registering a case”.
Experts are unanimous that elephants in India are endangered.
“Having elephant corridors means nothing if the same have highways, roads and railway tracks running through them. In Dhenkanal [in Orissa], a good number of elephants remain trapped as a canal cut through their corridor,” explained wildlife expert Ranjit Patnaik.
Of the 88 identified elephant corridors in India, 40 have national highways running through them, 21 have railway tracks, and 18 have both.
But the lack of political determination seems to be the biggest roadblock in the path of saving the elephant. A panel appointed by the MoEF in 2011 had suggested forming a National Elephant Conservation Authority, along the lines of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority.
In addition, the MoEF now plans to start a pilot scheme to eletronically tag all elephants in high-traffic areas so that wildlife and forest personnel can keep track of their movements and warn railway officials well in time. Once elephants are electronically tagged, forest personnel will be able to track their movements and keep them away from harm.
But activists say deaths on rail tracks can be prevented only if the trains slow down and honk in areas where elephants are known to be present.
Another solution is building underpasses that would allow the elephant herds to cross without any harm. But until they are built, slowing the trains down likely remains the best option.
After the deaths in Bengal, Natarajan wrote a letter to the railway minister reading: “If we can save scores of elephants from death, certainly slowing down of some trains at vulnerable patches should not be considered too great a hardship.”