Dehradun: Water level in springs and waterholes is rapidly falling due to the onset of a premature heat wave in the forests of the Rajaji National Park in the northern Indian Uttaranchal state. This is the time of the year that animals, especially elephants, cross over the railway tracks in search of water and get hit by passing trains. The joint efforts of the forest department, the railways and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) had ensured that 2002 and 2003 remained zero mortality years for elephants in rail accidents. The broad gauge railway tracks passing through Rajaji connect the capital of the newly formed state with the rest of the country.
“This is again a challenge for us,” Dr Anil Kumar Singh, WTI’s senior field officer posted at Rajaji said. “We are doing a series of interventions to ensure that 2004 too should remain a zero mortality year.”
As a part of the project supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, WTI’s Wild Species programme and the forest department are in the process of desilting two existing water bodies and creating four more so that there is ample water and the animals do not need to cross over the railway line. “As we had reported earlier, one of the principal findings of the study done by Anil was that animals crossed over for water and got trapped in the high embankments flanking the railway track. Speed was also an issue since trains were tending to hit the animals at blind turns,” Dr P.S.Easa, WTI’s Conservation Director explained.
WTI’s Wild Aid programme had earlier helped initiate joint patrolling on the tracks in the summer months in the night to warn the drivers about animal movement. “This year we have three teams patrolling the tracks at Raiwala, Kansrao and Motichur with wireless sets. We have also scheduled a workshop with train drivers and guards, who do this stretch, along with the forest guards so that it works as a refresher for them,” Dr Singh said.
It is interesting to note that of the 72 elephant deaths due to train hits in India between 1987 and 2001, 20 elephants died on the railway track between Haridwar and Dehradun. This translated to almost one elephant per year and was about 18 per cent of the total elephant deaths in the Park. Notably, mortality due to train accidents occurred only in three ranges namely: Kansrao, Haridwar and Motichur, and accounted for 45 per cent of the deaths here. Kansrao was the highest with 63 per cent, Motichur 50 per cent, followed by Haridwar with 33 per cent.
Sixteen of the deaths occurred between January and June with a peak in May. Majority of those hit were females. Other animal deaths that were recorded included those of 26 sambar deer, 19 cheetal, 3 wild boar, 2 leopards and one goral in addition to a python. The WTI study found that the 2 km stretch between Kansrao and Doiwala was the most vulnerable.
Additionally, information was also collected on land features, such as earthen mounds on the sides, slopes, altitude etc. along the railway track. Availability of water and the quantity of garbage disposed from the train were also looked into. The speed of trains was recorded and elephant presence near the track was monitored. The places of frequent elephant movements were also identified. Investigations showed that there were 11 turnings, some of which were sharp, a number of steep mounds on both sides of the tracks in some places coupled with the disturbances around and garbage on the tracks contributed to the reasons for the death of elephants.
The Park officials organized meetings with the Railways and some of the identified mounds were cleared. WTI put up sign boards in vulnerable areas along the railway track to alert the drivers.