Elephants meet with a gory end on rail tracks in Kerala

The recent deaths of two elephants near Walayar of train-hit, the first within a forest range in Kerala in three years, have brought the focus right back to how little has been done to keep the wild animals safe in their own terrain. Railways plan a solution with Artificial Intelligence, while the Forest dept. promises increased vigil

Updated - October 21, 2022 02:50 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2022 08:03 pm IST - PALAKKAD 

A wild elephant crossing the railway track at Kottekkad, Palakkad.

A wild elephant crossing the railway track at Kottekkad, Palakkad. | Photo Credit: K.K. Mustafah

Last Friday, Vivek Express, the country’s longest running train from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh in Assam, hit a herd of elephants at Kottamutti between the Walayar and Kanjikode stations on Railways’ B-line. 

When a 20-year-old mother elephant was knocked down on the spot, another 15-year-old she-elephant was fatally wounded on its back and legs. The first elephant died of a broken brain and spinal cord by the side of the tracks; the second died the very next day in a nearby river. The local people have sighted a calf with injuries to its trunk. Chances of the calf’s survival looked bleak, with the Forest staff continuing their efforts to trace the injured baby.

The incident has shocked the people and the authorities alike. It was the first elephant death on the tracks in the Walayar forest range within Kerala borders in the last three years. The Kerala Forest Department maintains that it has been doing everything possible to avert elephant deaths on tracks ever since a tusker was mowed down by Thiruvananthapuram-Chennai Express near Walayar on the eve of Christmas in 2019. 

“We enhanced vigil, and avoided elephant-hits dozens of times by alerting Railways in the past few months. The trains were stopped many times to help the elephants move on. But this incident has been a shocker,” said Kurra Srinivas, Divisional Forest Officer (Palakkad). Although there was a three-year lull in train-elephant collisions at Walayar in the Kerala forest region, in November 2021 that three female elephants, including a juvenile, were killed on the tracks near Navakkarai within the Madukkarai forest range of Tamil Nadu.

The accident that occurred on Railways’ relatively safer A-line may be technically out of Kerala’s boundary, but the safety of hundreds of elephants that pass through the forested region is increasingly in jeopardy. Train-hits are becoming one of the biggest causes of unnatural elephant deaths in India. The Southern Railways is leading along with the Northeast Frontier Railway in elephant hits. 

Sordid figures

Figures released by the Railway Ministry indicate that more than 50 elephants were killed on the tracks across the country in the last three years. When 10 elephants were hit by trains in 2019, 16 died on the tracks in 2020, and 19 in 2021. As many as 15 elephants were knocked down by trains between Kanjikode and Walayar between 2002 and 2019. And all of them died on the B-line.

The A and B lines are the two railway lines that connect Kanjikode station in Kerala and Ettimadai station in Tamil Nadu. When the lower gradient allows the trains from Palakkad to Coimbatore take the 19.4-km-long B-line that passes through the forests of Walayar and Madukkarai, trains towards Palakkad take the A-line because of the higher gradient. However, the trains sometimes change the lines depending on traffic. Palakkad Divisional Railway Manager Trilok Kothari said that Railways were strictly following speed restrictions in the vulnerable section. Trains have a restriction of 45 kmph at night and 65 kmph during the day in this section. For goods trains, Railways have imposed a speed restriction of 25 kmph on A-line and 35 kmph on B-line. 

How AI works

Mr. Kothari said Railways would augment several of its ongoing preventive measures being undertaken with the Forest Department to stop recurrence of elephant deaths. He said the Artificial Intelligence Early Warning System (AIEWS) would soon be implemented in Kerala region. The AIEWS implemented on a pilot basis near Ettimadai station on the Coimbatore-Palakkad section has been found effective. 

According to Mr. Srinivas, the AIEWS has so far been the most effective measure to keep elephants away from the trains. With 20 video cameras installed within a kilometre stretch, the system can automatically detect the presence of elephants and send an alert to a control room, where all cameras will be monitored. Using a proper algorithm, elephants can be identified at 100-200 metres depending on the density of the forest. The control room will immediately alert the railway officials, who in turn will alert the loco pilots about the presence of elephants.

Clearing vegetation

Railways are poised to implement AIEWS along a one-km stretch near Walayar station. Several other measures are also being taken to prevent elephant deaths on the tracks. “We are clearing the vegetation on both sides of the tracks periodically and have installed signages to warn loco pilots,” said M.K. Gopinath, Palakkad Railway Division’s Public Relations Officer. 

Also read: AI system to detect presence of elephants on Athirappilly road

Railways will soon construct two underbridges to ensure safe passage of elephants in the section. Elephant ramps constructed between Ettimadai and Walayar sections have been found effective. Railways have widened the space at some points by cutting the soil in order to give room for elephants. The Forest Department is engaging elephant trackers at some vulnerable points. “We will put the technology to best use. We may not be able to provide manpower always,” said Mr. Kurra. 

Blaming both

The Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society of India (WPCSI), meanwhile, approached the Union government seeking its direct intervention to prevent the death of elephants. WPCSI wildlife officer S. Guruvayurappan blamed both Railways and the Forest department for the elephant deaths. “Railways have no concern for wildlife. And the Forest department is not serious about pursuing the cases,” he said.

No case registered by the Forest department against the loco pilot or any other railway official is pursued. Registration of cases remains a farce when elephants die on the tracks.

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