Guwahati, Thursday, January 6, 2011
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Move to reduce elephant-train mishaps
Sivasish Thakur
 GUWAHATI, Jan 5 – In a joint endeavour to save the elephant – the ‘heritage animal' of the country – the Forest Department along with Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and NF Railway (NFR) have identified 16 accident-prone areas along railway tracks across Assam, where arrangements have been made for intensified patrolling to reduce the risk of trains hitting elephants.

Over the years the incidence of elephant fatalities involving trains has remained high in the State. Significantly, most of the accidents have been occurring at the same points, as several known elephant corridors fall on the railway tracks.

One such vulnerable point is the Chakardo area near Deepor Beel, a Ramsar site wetland which forms a contiguous ecological belt with the Garbhanga Reserve Forest. Over a dozen elephants have fallen to train-hits in the area in the past one decade.

Prof Parimal Bhattacharjee of WTI said that so far 16 accident-prone sites had been identified all over Assam, and a mechanism worked out for minimizing the risk of accidents involving elephants.

“We are having intensified joint patrolling with Forest Department in and around all these spots with assistance from the railway-men. Any information regarding movement of elephants in the area is immediately passed on to the railways and subsequently the locomotive driver alerted about the presence of elephants on or near the tracks," Prof Bhattacharjee said.

Some of the sites identified for enhanced patrolling include the stretch of 164 km-169 km at Chakardo near Deepor Beel in Guwahati, Krishnai-Dudhnai, Jogighopa-Pancharatna, Narengi-Digaru near Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, Hawaipur-Lumding, Lumding-Khotkhoti, Golai near Digboi, and Nakachari-Moriyani.

Prof Bhattacharjee said that the new arrangement was working well, with around 33 possible accidents having been averted in the past couple of years so far. "The results have been positive, as intensified monitoring has resulted in sending timely warning to the trains," he said.

S Seal Sharma, DFO, Guwhati Wildlife Division, however, is of the view that the Deepor Beel stretch that has earned notoriety for a spurt in train mishap-induced elephant fatalities, poses a peculiar problem due to the topography of that particular point and needs to be addressed in a different manner.

"The spot has two high-rise points that often traps elephants while they come face to face with a train, blocking their escape routes. The area must be levelled or else it will continue to be a death trap for the pachyderms," Seal Sharma said, adding that enhanced monitoring was necessary but as an immediate and most effective measure, the area must be made even to save elephants from being hit by trains.

The forest official also suggested having elevated railway tracks near elephant corridors as a long-term project for avoiding accidental elephant deaths.

Prof Bhattacharya said that the elephant being a keystone species with a significant ecological role, coordination between the railways, Forest Department and NGOs was critical to minimize the high rate of train accident fatalities for the animal.

“Elephants are a living heritage and play a great ecological role. They eat a lot and have a poor digestive system which causes them to defecate 18-20 times a day. This helps in spreading the seeds of various flora and consequently their regeneration," Prof Bhattacharjee said.

A railway official said that the NFR authorities were putting a lot of emphasis on checking the incidence of accidents involving elephants.

"We are working in close coordination with the Forest Department and NGOs so that the loco pilots can be given prior warning about elephant movement near the corridors. Better monitoring has already resulted in averting a number of accidents," he said.

The official said that a technical seminar on saving elephants was organized recently where NFR and WTI officials deliberated on the safeguards being taken for reducing train accidents involving elephants.

The official said that steps were also taken to sensitize the train drivers on the need for maintaining speed control while driving along elephant habitat.

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