Wild animals are not safe in their own homes. Numerous animals lose their lives in accidents on roads and railway tracks which pass through wildlife areas on a daily basis. About 32,000 animals lost their lives in train accidents between 2016 and 2018, according to Ministry of Railways’ data from last year.
Highly-guarded tiger reserves and other protected forests are no exception either. About 18 elephants have been killed in train accidents on railway tracks passing through the Rajaji Tiger Reserve (RTR) since 2013. Forest officials blame it on the electrification of trains and the high speed railway system launched in 2016, increasing train speeds and worsening the situation. The Northern Railways has announced a further increase in train speeds from 50 kmph to 100 kmph through a 52-km railway stretch which intersects the RTR.
Chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand, J.S. Suhag, told NewsClick: “We held talks with senior officials of Northern Railways to reconsider their decision and they have agreed to decrease the train speed up to 35 kmph for a sensitive patch of 18 kms between 8 pm to 6 am.”
RTR is spread over an area of 820.42 km2 in the Shivalik ranges of the Himalayan foothills in Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri Garhwal districts of Uttarakhand. A highly vulnerable 18-km railway track of the Haridwar-Dehradun section passes through three ranges of the park namely, Haridwar, Motichur and Kansrao, which are rife with wild animals like tigers, elephants, leopards, deer species, Neelgai etc.
However, when Tarun Prakash, divisional railway manager of Moradabad was contacted for confirmation, he only confirmed that train speeds will be reduced, adding that 36 trains for the Dehradun-Haridwar and Haridwar-Rishikesh route would be operating on the route. Their numbers may further increase with the notification of the Kumbh Mela.
Sources alleged that more trains meant higher speeds and higher animal casualties.
D.K. Singh, Director of RTR, said: “In 2015, National Board for Wildlife laid down norms for trains passing through the tiger reserves. They were to run at a speed of 35 kmph at night and 40 kmph during the day.”
A Nainital High Court order passed in 2016, says: “Forest department is directed to set up a monitoring cell to track movement of elephants and other wild animals and to inform railway authorities. There shall be coordination between the forest department and the railways. Railway authorities are directed to ensure that speed of trains should not be more than 30km/h (sic)”.
Notably the twelve hours between 6 pm and 6 am is critical since visibility reduces in the dark. Visibility remains hampered due to the fog in winter months. Accidents occur if train drivers can not clearly see the elephants or wild animals on the track. Food items and other litter thrown by the railway caterers and people on the tracks also attract wild animals.
Singh also expressed his apprehension that animals who had gotten used to venturing around railway tracks, as there was little train movement during the lockdown period, could be more vulnerable to getting hit by trains now.
For over the past three years, the installation of seismic sensitive sensors to track the movement of wild animals on vulnerable patches of railways tracks in RTR has been hanging for want of funds.
After a government project under the environment minstry in 2017 recommended their use, the Chandigarh-based Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIO) was entrusted with the task to research, design and manufacture the seismic sensitive sensors under the guidance of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). It was to avert elephant deaths near the railway tracks in RTR. If the pilot project was successful, it was to be implemented in such areas across the country.
Concerned forest officials and railway staff were to get information about wildlife movement on and near the railway track through these sensors. It would enable them to take pre-emptive measures like lowering the speed of the train or halting the train. This would have been a significant step in containing the deaths.
A CSIO scientist, on the condition of anonymity, said the organisation completed its task of designing and manufacturing the sensors by 2018. The efficacy of these sensors was tested and corroborated when they were installed on a 400 meter patch of 18 kms of railway track. The gadgets have been registering the movements of wild animals and sending out messages to the scientists for last two years with remarkable accuracy. However, their utility is yet to be tested on the ground due to the absence of funds at the state forest department and the railways, the scientist explained.
While Prakash denied having any knowledge of the matter, Suhag assured that he had called the official concerned for a demonstration of the sensors.
Last year, Pradeep Sharma, the then wildlife warden of RTR, had rued the non-release of Rs 1.5 crore by the state government to procure seismic sensors.
After witnessing 20 elephant deaths on railway tracks passing through RTR between 1987 and 2001, the tiger reserve had set an excellent example by registering zero mortality for almost 10 years between April 2002 and December 2012 on railway tracks.
But, in 2013, a female elephant was found hit on the train track, run over by a train running at 50 kmph. The same year some eight jumbos died in Odisha as the train was running at 110 kmph.
The writer is a Chandigarh based independent journalist who writes on the environment, climate change, wildlife, social and gender based issues