Sunday, February 3, 2013

On the elephant’s track

We need ecologically sustainable development goals that should prioritize on wildlife in ecologically critical areas
As the year 2012 came to an end, heart rendering scenes filled newspapers as five elephants were killed by a speeding train in Ganjam district, Orissa. More were to follow in Uttarakhand and North Bengal. In a similar gruesome incident in September 2010, death of seven elephants in Jalpaiguri district raised public outcry. Trying to protect the calves that were stuck on the tracks, the mother and other members of the herd were also mowed down by the speeding train.

Linear fragmentation threats such as railway lines, highways, power evacuation and transmission lines pose a threat to wildlife survival in a multitude of ways. They act as barriers for movement of species especially those that need contiguous tree canopy such as lion-tailed macaque, loris, Malabar giant and flying squirrels, flying snake, or smaller animals such as turtles that find it very hard to cross railway tracks. This restricted movement limits access of food sources, nesting sites that are spread across the forests apart from genetic isolation of populations. However the most noticeable impact is the direct killing of animals by speeding trains. 

High numbers of elephant mortalities are recorded from the states of Assam, West Bengal, Orissa and Uttarakhand due to train accidents. Elephant deaths are obviously noticed due to their mammoth body size. However deaths of several other animals go unnoticed as the carcass will be sliced to pieces and strewn around making the mortality undetected. Tiger, leopard, deer and several other species that have demised due to trains have been recorded from various parts of the country. Casualties will be high particularly at night and at curves when visibility for engine drivers will be poor.  

As the country marches ahead on its economic front, developing transportation infrastructure has been a key priority investment sector for the government. During the years 2011-12 and 2012-13, an amount of Rs 117,730 crore has been earmarked for Indian railways to provide better connectivity. This investment is key for improvement of country’s economy; however, care needs to be taken when some of these railway lines pass through ecologically sensitive areas.    

The Government of Kerala is lobbying for a railway line to be built through Bandipur Tiger Reserve to upgrade connectivity between Mysore and the Waynad districts. There are already two highways through this tiger reserve, and a train line parallel to these highways would further fragment the wildlife habitat. Despite the suggestion by the railways that an alternate route would be better suited, local leaders and a few “environmental” organisations are strongly promoting this project including filing an application in the Supreme Court. These ruinous projects need to be curtailed before they blossom. 

Similarly the North Bengal-Sikkim line along the foothills of Kanchanjunga and Teesta river valley passing through Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Chamrajnagar-Mettupalyam line in Karnataka and Tamilnadu, upgradation of railway line in the Periyar-Agasthyamalai corridor in Kerala and Tamilnadu will all impede movement of wildlife.  
Mitigation measures
Suggestions are made to build electric fences along the railway line to prevent elephants crossing the tracks. This will be more detrimental to the elephants and other animals as it stops their movement (migratory) patterns. 

Though slowing down train speeds, early warning systems and other mitigation measures exists and are partially effective, long-lasting solutions are better suited. New railway lines or gauge expansion in areas where conservation sets precedence over development such as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and elephant reserves that form a small portion of the country’s geographical area, should be avoided. The priority in these areas is to ensure that we provide spaces with little disturbance to wildlife. No new railway lines should be proposed or approved by the railways in these ecologically sensitive areas. 

Similarly the country can now afford realignment of railway lines to outside our natural heritages to preserve wildlife.  Where realignment is not practical, mitigation measures should be strictly implemented based on solid understanding of wildlife issues However we need to be clear that measures such as monitoring movements of elephants to warn train drivers is perhaps impractical. Elephants or any other wildlife are not domestic livestock that could be monitored or herded round the clock.  

Concerned over the rising number of elephant deaths on railway tracks, a parliamentary committee has now been appointed to assess and recommend to mitigate this serious threat. It is extremely important that the committee consults those involved in saving elephants from various threats. This gives a broader picture of the threat and possible solutions. The flawed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process in the country needs rejig and agencies implementing the projects should not be funding the EIA studies as the reports are very likely to be in favor of the funding agency.

Railway lines, roads, transmission lines are all necessary to provide connectivity, power and communication. However a sensitive approach towards wildlife, both in planning and implementation, is currently lacking and a more holistic developmental approach is indispensable.

Railway lines were initiated in the mid-nineteenth century when forest tracts were extensive, building transportation network was experimented and importantly there were no serious threats to wildlife conservation. However in the changed socio-economic scenario there should be priorities for achieving ecologically sustainable developmental goals. It is an opportunity for the parliamentary committee to put things on the right track.    

An edited version of this article was published in Indian Express on 01-02-2013