Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tracks Cutting through national heritage


Tuskers facing brunt of Railways apathy in a losing battle

Reeta Tiwari / Kolkata

Railway tracks passing through national parks and wild life sanctuaries in North Bengal are turning into killing field for wild tuskers.

Seven elephants were brutally mowed down by a speeding train recently when they were trying to save two of their young trapped on the Siliguri-Alipurduar track in North Bengal. Five died on the spot. For two others, it was a slow, agonising end.

The National Heritage Animal status for the elephant was one of the important recommendations of 12-member Elephant Task Force which submitted its report to Environment and Forests Ministry in August 2010. The government accorded the status to the elephant following the approval of the Elephant Task Force.

The railways shrugged off its responsibility saying that the accident occurred between two tea gardens, which is not a protected zone. This stretch of line cuts through the tropical forests of the eastern Himalayas and is surrounded by tea gardens. Ninety percent of the accidents occur at night, prompting NGOs, forest officers and conservationists to press for a night ban on the movement of trains, a demand which was rejected.

In 2008, a Centre-appointed expert committee had identified six vulnerable zones where trains were mandated to go slow which fell on deaf ears.

These tragic incidents have finally stirred the Government to take notice of the frequent jumbo deaths on rail tracks. Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh decided to grant Rs 7 crore assistance package for developing forest infrastructure and Railway development work.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya also wrote to Ramesh suggesting several measures. "The trains that run through these tracks during the day time should also have a speed restriction of a maximum 20 kmph," he wrote. Bhattacharya said that drastic steps like these were urgently needed as the tracks run through four wildlife sanctuaries and more than 20 identified elephant corridors. "During the 30-year period between 1974 and 2003, 26 elephants had been killed in collision with trains. In contrast, in a short span of seven years between 2004 and 2010, 27 elephants had died on railways tracks." The tracks in this area pass through some important wildlife corridors like Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and Buxa Tiger Reserve. But the Railway has turned down the request to stop plying trains at night in this route.

Even after the elephant Task Force, set up by the Environment and Forests Ministry to suggest ways to protect the endangered elephants, submitted a report showing as many as 150 elephants have died since 1987 on train tracks, Railway officials have only shown apathy. The Task Force report has raised serious concerns about the loss of elephant habitat and increase in incidents of man-elephant conflict.

"One of the problems has been the lack of recruitment at the local level at the forest guard level, forest ranger level," said Ramesh during his visit. "Many other states have started the process of recruitment and we must bring in younger people. We must bring in more active people, give them the facilities to do their job," he added.

Wildlife activists say the need of the hour is to sensitise the government of the problem in hand and look for solutions to end the tragedy.

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