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24 Feb 2024, Edition - 3147, Saturday

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Why are rail tracks turning into death traps for wild jumbos?

U Bharath


With over 70 trains passing through the vulnerable 25-km stretch of the Ettimadai-Valayar-Kanjicode section of the Palghat railway division, the number of jumbos dying after being mowed down by speeding trains are on the rise. As many as four jumbos have died in the last five months and 28 jumbos have perished in recent years under the wheels of trains in this forested section.

Alleging that lack of concrete measures to mitigate this man-animal conflict has only compounded the problem further, a section of conservationists say that the Tamil Nadu forest department and Southern Railways should initiate measures to save the gentle giants.

The Ettimadai-Valayar-Kanjicode section is gaining notoriety for the sheer number of elephants mowed to death by speeding trains. This forested section on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border of Southern Railways has become a death trap for jumbos, partially due to the nature of the terrain – ghat section with a steep gradient – and partly due to lack of mitigation measures put in place.

Though speed limits for the passing trains are fixed at 45 kmph (night) and 60 kmph (day), it seems this has not helped to avoid collisions. A 30-year-old tusker which was mowed down by the Tiruchy-Palghat passenger on November 27 reportedly ran on to the track alarmed by the continuous whistling of the loco-pilot (which is advised by the railway authorities to ward off elephants) when it was hit by the train.

“An elephant ramp for easy passage of jumbos was constructed near Ettimadai but in vain. No elephant footprints have been found till date at this site. Two waterholes have also been created,” a forest official said.

“Out of the box thinking and strategies are the need of the hour. An expert committee, consisting of elephant researchers, forest and railway higher officials, and local body representatives, should study the problem and find a lasting solution. Elephant crossing points should be identified to construct underpasses. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and infrared cameras at vital points on the tracks should be fixed in this vulnerable 25-km forested stretch for better surveillance. Though antipoaching guards and railway workmen guard the tracks, the elephant deaths have not come down,” according to a leading conservationist.

“Both Southern Railways and the TN Forest department should pool in their funds and resources,” said K Kalidas of Osai, an elephant conservation NGO.

“Even though draft proposals have been sent to the Tamil Nadu forest department and the Railway ministry to construct elephant underpasses – like in the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand where wildlife and elephant deaths have become nil after the facility was created – nothing has materialised so far. Everything is still in the planning stage despite a couple of joint meetings by the stakeholders,” a senior forest official said.

Elephants are essentially nomadic and migratory animals that may travel around 60 kms a day in search of fodder and water. Since 1989, 124 elephant deaths have been reported on rail tracks across the nation – from the North East to West Bengal to Tamil Nadu. Will the stakeholders – Southern Railways, Forest departments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala – join hands to find a lasting solution to save the Asian elephant, whose numbers are on the decline now due to various reasons?

After all, Bholu, an elephant holding a green signal lamp, is the official mascot of the Indian Railways.

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