Jumbo problems for the Indian railways
Running late that morning, the Kanchankanya Express train zipped past Gulma and entered the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in northern West Bengal, India. Till a few minutes ago, impatience was writ large on every face. Now with the fog having finally lifted and the green forest cover glistening under the sun, things were finally looking up. But before my co-passengers could sigh with relief, the train came to a screeching halt, right in the middle of the forest. I looked out the door of my compartment. A group of passengers had already detrained and gathered by the railway track, speculating what was wrong. "Not to worry", one of them shouted back to us in Bengali, "The train just hit a grazing cow. We will be on our way soon." What he perhaps did not say, was that it could easily have been an elephant.
Elephant deaths on this track are a common and cumbersome affair. The Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, with its fairly large elephant population, is just one among the many forests the 163 km long Siliguri-Alipurduar railway track cuts through. Others include Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary famous for its gaur and elephant populations, Jaldapara National Park which harbors a high density of one-horned rhinoceros, Buxa Tiger Reserve and several other protected forests. The forests aside, the track moves through a mosaic of lush green rolling tea gardens against the backdrop of the Himalayas, numerous croplands, villages, towns, and several large and small rivers interweaving through the landscape. With 74 km of the track going through forests, this railway line has been in the media glare for more wrong reasons than right.
This year, so far, eleven elephants have reportedly died due to train accidents on this track. Five elephants in January and a single tusker in March were hit by passenger trains near Buxa Tiger Reserve. The latest incident in May, which claimed the lives of five elephants near Banarhat, bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar accident in 2010 in which seven elephants died around the same place.
While all of these casualties were due to passenger trains, goods trains here have had their own share of collisions in the past. Over the last 10 years, goods trains have been responsible for over 32% of all casualties, while passenger trains account for 62%. On an average five elephants either die or are injured on this track, a steep rise from the average of one elephant casualty per year prior to 2003, when the track was still meter gauge.
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Elephant image via Shutterstock.