Throughout the stretch of Asia and Africa, until a few decades ago, majestic elephants were common to sight but their strength has now thinned steeply since the past decade causing a thick disruption to our ecosystem. Unlike Africa, where elephants are highly at risk of poaching by those harbouring greed for the illegal ivory trade, in Asia, loss of habitat and human-elephant clash (though unintentional) are serious facts that threaten the existence of both.
Sadly, all across India, elephant-centric rampage, continues on railway tracks and forest departments and Railways are put to question, as they fail to comply with norms set up to prevent such vast bloodshed.
Grand creatures are knocked down and bloodied all over when they find speeding trains rushing towards them, horribly crying whistles but to no avail to such animals filled with innocence. In fact, railways in India have also been blamed for their deaths due to collisions. However, separate passages have been identified for elephants and CAG report indicates that during the time 2016-17 and 2018-19, around 20 and 18 elephants have succumbed due to this. This is called Report No 5 of 2021- Compliance Audit On Union Government (Railways) year ended 2019.
Railways have been identified as the second-largest reason for such a massacre.
On flipping the report pages, there is revealed the pending status of overpasses and underpasses which were planned for construction but ignorance is clearly and grossly shared by state forest departments and the railways.
Going further we find that the periodic reviews of vegetation are supposed to be conducted by railway officials and the forest department but such did not occur thoroughly. Then, railways fail to put any signage boards cautioning about elephants too.
The CAG audit scanned such gory events for a period of 2016-17 to 2019 and also outlined the steps taken by the railways.
In eight zones of Indian Railways, such research was conducted, i.e. Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), South Eastern Railway (SER), East Coast Railway (ECoR), Southern Railway (SR), Northern Railway (NR), South Central Railway (SCR), East Central Railway (ECR) and North Eastern Railway (NER).
Besides, records were searched in zonal headquarters and divisions by CAG as it gathered and sorted data from forest departments falling under states which is linked to the tragic ends of elephants on tracks. Besides, CAG also explored the groundwork concerning elephant corridors, that are planned in railway compounds and also checked the coordination health between the forest department and Railway authorities.
In eight Railway Zones, CAG pinpointed 77 elephant passages that require inspection by the engineering department out of a total 104.
Finding are a jolt when we see that such passages were in fact, the places where such bloody clash (of titans) happened in the past and remedial steps were taken in form of honey bee sound devices, underpasses and overpasses, barricades and even solar fencing.
In the audit report, it holds NRF accountable for the maximum number of elephant deaths, i.e. 29, which is due to train hits while 13 deaths are recorded by SER. To make things more worrisome, 37 elephant lives were lost in areas that were marked as elephant passages.
The basic purpose of underpasses and overpasses is to garner safe passage for elephants but such is present only in two railway zones, i.e. ECR and NFR.
Interestingly, following the completion of such underpasses and overpasses, not a single elephant death is reported after April 2014.
Leaving these two zones aside, none of the zonal railways has had any underpass or overpass, which clearly reflects lethargy on part of forest departments as well as the railways, as such underpasses or overpasses are a safe passage of elephants.
Moreover, certain spots were marked as sensitive to such collisions and even the speed of the trains was put under restriction by the Standing Committee on Railways (2013).
As a fallout, there was great willingness shown by the railways and the forest department as both parties to reduce speed to 50 kilometres per hour in sensitive spots.
In 77 elephant passages that were scanned by CAG, the findings are:
- Caution order / Speed restrictions of 50 kmph or less than 50 kmph were being imposed for the whole day in 37 passages.
- In 18 passages, it was followed only for the night.
- In one selected passage of the NFR (Rangjuli-Amjanga section) caution order of 60 kmph was being imposed.
- In one selected passage of the ECoR (Koderma Jn-Hazaribag Town), imposition of speed restriction was stated to be not required due to the construction of overpasses.
- In seven other selected elephant passages of ECoR, instead of the 50 kmph speed restriction, caution advice of ‘Blow Long Whistle, sharp lookout and stop dead if required’ had been implemented.
- In the remaining 13 elephant passages, no speed restriction or caution advice was imposed by the Railway administration despite notification of the same as elephant passages.
The CAG also reported about the low density of foliage along the track as such was plucked in 64 points out of 77 but in remaining areas, heavy vegetation was sighted. It apparently flouted the norms laid down by the Union environment ministry.
Now, about the shape, size, shade and content to be mentioned on elephant signage boards, which are supposed to mark the elephant passages, the Indian Railways Permanent Way Manual is a tad clear.
As such, due to the absence of any clear-cut signboard guidelines, many types of signboards have been put at elephant passages.
But in its finding, the audit report specifies 23 passages to be without any signage boards, out of a total 77.
There were installed retro-reflective signage boards in 30 passages covering 5 railway zones while 24 passages had signage boards that were even hand-painted in many shades across 5 zones.
Likewise, in four zones, eight locations were selected for signage boards to be put inside elephant passages.
Strange enough, about the elephant collision issue, no major effort was made to educate railway staff about this.
Besides, in the total of 6 Railway zones, i.e. ECoR, ECR, NER, SER, SR and SW, no awareness programs were organized to propagate the cause of wildlife protection.
But the NFR region witnessed17 awareness campaigns which were held at the Zonal Railway Training Institute, Alipurdur, in tenure 2016-17 through 2018-19.
This was during 2016-17 to 2018-19 that the railway staff was made aware of “possible risk of elephant mortality due to train hits”
In such a life-saving pursuit, pantry staff in three zones in railways, – ECR, SR and NR, was advised not to throw any food on tracks that would draw the wild animals to tracks. But then, such an advisory was never heard of, in the remaining five zones.
1). The dung of elephants carries a huge significance and as it is abundant, a variety of dung beetles feast upon it. Once such is dropped, dung beetles rush towards it, in the hope of grabbing their share present in nutritious mass and fluids present in it.
Besides, when such dung is consumed, dung beetles release their excreta below the ground where their larvae flourishes. As a result, soil components are loosened up, which remain tightly intact otherwise and in this way, elephant fertilizer is distributed in a wide area where it enriches the soil.
2). Secondly, elephants hold a great significance in retaining the fertility in our ecosystems and in sustaining plant species.
3). Further, when the beetle larvae absorb by the dung, become good food for many animals, such as field mice and honey badgers.
As such, elephant dung not only helps in the survival of beetle populations but is also instrumental for managing the life of many other lives on earth.
4). Then, branches are broken as elephants walk through lush forests, more variety of animals get their food which wouldn’t be possible without elephants acting like roaming wood-cutters.
Truly, other creatures depend upon such floppy-eared creatures for food and these help in maintaining the diversity of species within the ecosystems.
5). Then, elephants trace water vociferously by digging deep into the ground and their feet, trunks and tusks help them achieve this objective and to make a reach underground pool of water. As a fallout, water is pulled out of holes and is consumed by other animals too.
6). Environment Patterns Are Altered By Elephants:
Thanks to their size, not much can get into the way of elephants and in forests, elephants pave the way by consuming vegetation. As a result of such clearing, more sunlight reaches forest ground and plants that lie low, get fresh life.
7). Elephant is taken as the biggest herbivore in the world and it consumes a great quantity of plant matter daily. After chewing the vegetation, which also has seeds, elephants help in transporting plants to other places and also as they drop the dung.
8). Now, as there is a diverse range of animals that need different plant types, such factor strengthens biodiversity and help new niches for organisms to flourish.
9). Apart from this, even the savannah habitats are changed by elephants when trees are pulled down and bushes with thorns are split. Such activity makes the savannah an open plain replete with dense trees and bushes and such is a safe haven for species that prefer the savannah biome.
Clearly, plants can’t get to cover the vast area in such a way, from the place where they were plucked and eaten initially.
10). There are studies confirming that elephants helped disperse seeds on a wider distance, say upto 60 kilometres.
11). Elephant dung has come out to be the perfect fertilizer and contains nutrients that are essential to germinate seeds and to propel their growth.
As the seeds are spread to other places, new plants get the needed boost in new areas, which help in making new habitats and also enables plant growth meant for a large variety of animals.
“The works of barricading / fencing along Railway tracks were not taken up. Co-ordination meeting between forest and Railway officials was not a regular feature,” the report said.
“The matter (of all these irregularities) was taken up with the Railways Ministry in September 2020; no reply was received (February 2021),” it added.
The CAG report went public as of November 29, 2021.
Well dear readers, as the whole world unites on one platform to save planet and to weaken climate change, we need to consider about such stately animals too as such are equally critical to our ecosystem.