Nowadays hearing news of elephants dying while crossing railway tracks in North Bengal is nothing new. This year itself, 18 have been killed, the latest being on November 13, when seven, including a calf, were killed.
This has a direct link to the conversion of the track from New Jalpaiguri to Alipurduar, across Mahananda, Chapramari and Gorumara Wildlife Sanctuaries, Buxa Tiger Reserve, and numerous jungles in between, from metre gauge to broad gauge between 2002 and 2004. The data which we have proves this. From 1974 to 2002, for a period of 28 years, 74 elephants were killed. This number has jumped to an alarming 52 from 2004 till date, a period of only nine years.
A large part of the forests in the Dooars across which the railway track runs is part of the corridor which elephants take while journeying between the forests of Bengal and Assam. This railway line is largely responsible for the fragmentation of their habitat. Elephants have been crossing these jungles since times immemorial. The migration routes of elephants are embedded in their brains and it is impossible to make them change their habits. Elephants are known for their huge brains and are very intelligent, one of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom. The memory of migration routes pass on from generation to generation.
Dead elephant on the track in North Bengal
A lot of methods to prevent trains from hitting elephants are suggested now and then, and whenever accidental deaths of elephants occur. One of the ways which has been tried is asking railway drivers to lower the speeds of trains while passing through the forests during the night, when the deaths mostly occur. But this has met with very limited success, as drivers often do not follow the rule.
Another suggested method is to set up a wireless animal tracking system, which could sense and emit warning signals on approach of heavy-bodied animals to warn drivers. The moment the driver is alerted, he can slow down the speed to give the elephant time to pass, or make an emergency stop.
The government of West Bengal, in a reply to a recent PIL in the Supreme Court, has suggested a few methods through which collisions can be averted. Among the methods suggested are…
- The single line of New Jalpaiguri-Falakata-Alipurduar can be converted into double line so that traffic in the Dooars line can be diverted through this line.
- Railway authorities can construct elevated corridors for elephants, with underpasses for the railway track, at nine vulnerable points identified by the state’s conservator of forests, wildlife circle (north), for safe passage of trains.
Elephant underpass - the Kenyan success story and others
A method that has found success in the case of elephant corridors is the underpass method. In Kenya, a $1-million 15-foot high underpass, named Mt Kenya Elephant Corridor Underpass, has been constructed below a road on the forested slopes of Mt Kenya. The underpass re-connected two elephant populations which had been separated for years by the road. Elephants have been using the underpass since January 2011. A fenced-in nine-mile corridor, either side of the tunnel, is also being constructed to prevent the elephants from venturing near the track while crossing. This has been seen as a major success regarding the problem of collision between elephants and vehicles.
Though this has been a celebrated success, mainly because such a thing has taken place for the first time in Africa, the home to the much more endangered African elephant, which has come under renewed threat from poachers because of Chinese demand for ivory, it is not the first time in the world.
There are elephant underpasses in India and China. Since August 2010, elephants have been using two underpasses in Assam along a 35-km stretch of national highway 152, which portion runs parallel to the eastern boundary of the Manas National Park and cuts through Daodhora Reserve Forest, a buffer zone of Manas Tiger Reserve.
Elephants crossing the underpass in Kenya
The Kenyan underpass
The first wildlife crossings were constructed in France during the 1950s. European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and France have been using various crossing structures to reduce the conflict between wildlife and roads for several decades. There are a variety of overpasses and underpasses to protect and re-establish wildlife such as amphibians, badgers, ungulates, invertebrates, and other small mammals.
In Canada and other countries, wildlife overpasses have been built or are being built to cater to passing wildlife such as bear, elk and lynx. However, the overpass method has not been tried with much larger and acutely intelligent animals like elephants. In USA there are underpasses for animals like elk and deer, and overpasses for bighorn sheep. South Africa also has underpasses for wild animals.
Overpass for wildlife over a highway in Boeblingen, Germany
Wildlife overpass in Banff National Park, Canada
Bighorn sheep crossing an overpass in Arizona state, USA
Overpass for elephants – a possible solution in North Bengal
Now, experts have suggested the overpass method for helping elephants cross railway tracks safely in North Bengal. They have suggested ways to make the overpasses successful, to prevent the acutely intelligent elephants from thinking that they are crossing over man-made structures. Among them are the following:
• The passes should be camouflaged into the elephant habitat. For this, they can 00be covered with 2-metre tall grasses, ones the elephants are used to in the jungles of North Bengal they inhabit.
• These jungle flyovers should have 25-degree inclines on their approaches. Elephants are so sensitive that even an unfamiliar incline will prevent them from using a route.
• There should be 10-km long wire fences running near the tracks on the route to and from the overpasses, to prevent the elephants from going too near the tracks.
• Measures must be taken to prevent elephants from feeling the vibrations from the tracks below.
Diagram of a possible type of overpass
Till date, overbridges for elephants have been successful only in controlled environments. For example, Denver Zoo in USA has a 55-foot-long bridge over which elephants and rhinos cross from one habitat to another, while zoo visitors walk below.
A brighter picture ahead?
If this is undertaken, it could be a first for India. There had been suggestions for an overpass in Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, but it has not come to fruition due to differences between experts. The Indian and Kenyan success stories with underpasses for elephants proves that elephants can learn to negotiate different methods of going along their designated routes. If judiciously implemented, the overpass method can be successful for elephants. After all, the official mascot of the Indian Railways is Bholu, an adorable jumbo holding a signal lamp. The elephant has also been made the national heritage animal of India, because of the unique status it enjoys in our heritage and cultural tradition. It would be a fitting tribute to the elephant if the overpass method can stop elephant deaths on tracks.
Bholu, the elephant mascot of the Indian Railways
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv