Nearly five per cent of the elephant population in the Walayar forest area has been killed in the last few years

The rail track passing through forest areas in different parts of the country, including Walayar on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, have become a death trap for the wildlife, particularly elephants.

Though a hue and cry is raised every time a tragedy strikes, the deaths of a large number of wild elephants in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Assam and West Bengal remain a burning issue.

The recent incidents of train hits in these States have drawn the attention of animal lovers and government agencies.

The frequent carnage on the track in the Walayar forest area resulted in the death of 20 elephants in the last five years.

The estimated elephant population in the Walayar forest is around 400.

When the deaths became frequent, a joint meeting of the Forest Departments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Railways last year decided to dig trenches and erect electric fencing on either side of the track. They entrusted the Wildlife Trust of India with studying the problem and suggesting remedial measures.

This move came after the death of a pregnant elephant, along with two other elephants, hit by a train running between Pothanur and Madhukari in the Walayar-Coimbatore section on February 4, 2008. In the impact, the pregnant elephant was delivered of a calf, which also died on the spot.

Dangerous stretch

The fatalities usually occur over a distance of 20 km on the Kerala stretch of the track up to Walayar.

Most of the deaths happen on a two-km stretch on the ghat side where there is a rock cliff (with a few breaks in between, where elephants have made paths to cross the track) and where, immediately after the track, the topography is mostly a steep incline with a few paths through which a human settlement can be reached.

Elephants that see trains approaching them while on this stretch cannot return to the forest or reach the settlement, and are forced to flee along the track itself, with disastrous consequences.

The ‘B Line' of the Railways that passes through the forest keeps a curved path and it is a blind curve for most of the length, making it difficult for elephants to scramble to safety when they see an approaching train.

Though the Railways have reduced the speed of trains from 100 to 65 km per hour during daytime and to 45 km during night, this cannot save the animals once they are hit. Railway sources said even a hit by a train going at 25 km would prove fatal for elephants.

‘Fencing not effective'

S. Guruvayurappan, coordinator of the southern region of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, told The Hindu that electric fencing did not help to save the elephants. For, there was no proper maintenance and some times the elephants themselves destroyed the fencing.

The best way, Mr. Guruvayurappan said, would be to construct trenches in various dimensions — either a simple one dug along the track, or one built by paving the sides of the trenches.

There have also been demands to shift the ‘B Line' track from the forest parallel to NH-47. But the Railways ruled out the suggestion earlier citing problems like acquiring land and laying the track through the thickly populated NH area.

Mr. Guruvayurappan said that since elephants could approach the ‘A Line' only after crossing the ‘B Line' first, an effective project that shut off access to the ‘B Line' would provide a solution.

He added that steps should be taken to ensure adequate supply of food and water for wild animals in the Walayar forest area. The required number of waterholes should be dug inside the forest.

‘Move human settlement'

There are some human settlements on the ghat side of the ‘B Line,' and many of the people have abandoned cultivation due to raids by wild elephants on their farms. Mr. Guruvayurappan said these people would be too happy to move out of the forest area if they were given a reasonable resettlement package.

There are also the problems of illegal encroachment on forest land and clandestine cultivation of cannabis. These often trigger the movement of elephants away from their habitat, says Mr. Guruvayurappan.

To secure a future for the elephants and to sustain the ecological integrity of their habitat, urgent steps need to be taken by government agencies, he says.

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