Railway data shows that 70 elephants have died after being hit by trains since 2013. NFR and the forest department records say train-hits killed 16 elephants in 2016, and at least a dozen last year.
NEW DELHI: The Indian Railways has imposed speed restrictions of 30kmph to 50kmph along several stretches of tracks in the Northeast to treat a jumbo-sized problem — speeding trains crashing into elephants.
The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), which controls tracks in areas having the densest elephant population between Siliguri in West Bengal to deep inside eastern Assam, has identified stretches with a combined length of 207km where trains will slow down, according to officials familiar with the developments.
Railway data shows that 70 elephants have died after being hit by trains since 2013. NFR and the forest department records say train-hits killed 16 elephants in 2016, and at least a dozen last year. Four elephants were killed when a passenger train hit a herd crossing the tracks in central Assam this February, the worst tragedy after five elephants, including a pregnant female, died in similar circumstances last December.
The slowdown means trains will be delayed by 30 minutes to two hours in the region.
A train moving through the entire length of a restricted corridor would be delayed by three hours, but the delays will be less as alternative routes have been chosen, a railway official familiar with the plan said.
“It has been decided that signboards will be out up at all identified elephant corridors to warn train drivers,” said Pranav Jyoti Sharma, the NFR spokesperson.
The stretches where trains will slow down include 62 identified elephant corridors. Elephants are migratory by nature and move from one forest to another for food through these corridors, but trains hurtling down tracks that cut through natural habitat have become a rising threat for them.
As per the 2011 census, there are 5,620 wild elephants in Assam, the highest in the country.
According to Sharma, drivers and guards are briefed regularly by forest officials and they are asked to be cautious. Almost 90% of the accidents happen between 9pm and 7am.
“We are working closely with the forest department. There is a WhatsApp group for sharing information. It was decided that forest guards will send alerts at night about the movement of elephants and this information will be communicated to train drivers immediately,” Sharma said.
The railways has another plan to reduce elephant deaths on tracks – building ramps at locations frequented by elephants to let them cross without getting hit by oncoming trains.
“We recently had a meeting with the Assam chief secretary and the plan to build ramps was discussed. We are not sure how helpful it would be, but we are ready to build ramps if the forest department gives us funds,” said a railway official, requesting anonymity.
Also, the NFR is testing since last year a device near tracks that amplifies the buzz of swarming honeybees. Elephants are said to be afraid of bees, particularly of being stung on the sensitive trunk, and railway officials hope the sound of the stinging insects will stop the animals in their tracks.