Conservation scientist Aritra Kshettry had just begun his fieldwork studying the shared spaces between people and wildlife in India when he witnessed the aftermath of a gruesome interaction.
The Chapramari Forest lies in the eastern area of India, near the country’s border with Bhutan. Much of the vegetation here dries up in the winter. But a large herd of elephants found still-green grasses along the railway line that crosses through the forest. As the elephants foraged near and on the tracks at dusk, a passenger train traveling at 50 mph tried to brake but barreled into the herd. Five adults and two calves were killed, and 10 elephants were injured.
Kshettry visited the accident site early the next morning. “It appeared they were standing in a line on the tracks just in front of a bridge,” said the Ph.D. student at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, a Bengaluru-based conservation group. “The train pushed them onto the bridge. Some of them fell into the river and others got stuck, dangling from the bridge. They were all lying in pieces.”
The train’s locomotive driver recalled that the rest of the herd stayed nearby after the accident. It took nearly 24 hours to clear the area.
That November 2013 accident was the deadliest for elephants in recent memory. Train collisions in India have killed 266 elephants from 1987 to July 2017, according to the Wildlife Trust of India. And so far this year, at least 15 elephants have been killed, according to news reports. The deaths occur at hotspots in a few Indian states where trains intersect with elephant habitats, a combination of more trains, faster trains, and a larger elephant population.
“You can look at it as a demographer or from an emotional viewpoint,” said ecologist Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, who has been studying India’s elephants for more than three decades. “Train accidents don't make much difference in population. That's a very dispassionate view. But look at the mascot of Indian Railways. It's an elephant. The Railways cannot be killing their own mascot.”
India’s train system is extensive. It covers more than 41,000 miles and transported more than 8 billion passengers during fiscal year 2016-17. Its tracks were first laid during the British colonial era. Beginning in the early 1990s, they were gradually converted from a meter gauge system to broad gauge, which allows for bigger, faster, and more trains. Increased speeds can be deadly in places where the railway travels through elephant habitats, especially with more animals. Rail tracks cross through 20 of India’s 101 elephant corridors—strips of land that allow them to move between habitats.
The Asian elephant ranges across Southeast Asia, with India accounting for about 55 percent of the total. The country’s wild elephant numbers jumped from 15,627 in 1980, with the official Elephant Census 2017 pegging the population at 27,312.
But not every elephant across the country is at risk of a train collision. The deaths are concentrated in hotspots, mostly in the country’s east. High on the list is the northern area of West Bengal state, the same region where seven elephants died in the 2013 accident. The elephant population here is particularly dense. A railways official reported 30 elephants were killed there in the five years until mid-December 2017. In perhaps the most recent accident this year, a train plowed into a female elephant on the night of June 8. It was only earlier that day that forest and railways officials had met to discuss the problem.
Another hotspot is the Northeastern state of Assam. A December 2017 collision there claimed the lives of five elephants. A stillborn calf was later removed from the pregnant female in the herd. After that accident, a group of conservationists penned an open letter to India’s Railway Minister to address the problem. A week later, another four elephants were killed in the state, the impact so great that the locomotive disconnected from the rest of the train.
After a collision this past April in Odisha state that killed four elephants, Indian Railways lowered speed limits to as low as 18 mph in several accident-prone areas in the country's east. But wildlife wardens say train conductors often flout speed regulations. In turn, Railways blames forest officials for not informing them about elephants near tracks, especially at night when most collisions occur.
Besides lowering speeds and warnings about elephants, other methods are being tried. In January, the forest department of Tamil Nadu state mounted infrared sensors on 6-meter poles on both sides of the railway track near an elephant corridor in the Western Ghats mountain range. If an elephant triggers the sensor, a text message is sent to the staff and they can dispatch people to chase the animals away from the tracks. (Learn more about how text messages save elephants.)
Beginning late last year, railways officials in the east have installed devices that loudly broadcast the buzz of swarming honeybees, a sound they hope keeps elephants away for fear of the insects.
In the northern state of Uttarakhand, the forest department is using drones to keep track of animal movement. Still, three elephants were killed in train accidents in that state since February. (Learn more about conservation drones.)
More permanent solutions include constructing overpasses or underpasses as safe crossing points for the elephants, elevating the railway track, or re-aligning the track away from sensitive areas. Fencing off the track to prevent elephants from getting close is also a possibility.
However, fencing has its own complications. In an idea adopted from South Africa, the forest department is using old railway tracks to fence three national parks in the southern state of Karnataka, to lessen human-elephant conflict. But elephants have been caught on camera stepping in between or over the fence, sometimes injuring themselves on sections of track that have spikes on them.
Without mitigating the problem of collisions, there is a potential for elephant deaths to increase. Especially since the Railways is laying down more than 850 miles of new track in India’s Northeast region, home to a third of the country’s elephants.
There is one big unknown concerning elephant behavior and trains. Sukumar, the ecologist, said that in many cases, the train makes a direct impact on the animal while it is crossing or standing on the tracks. It’s possible they may be blinded by the train’s light since most accidents happen at night. Or they cannot see the train because it’s coming around a curve, he explained.
“It’s highly unlikely that they would get stuck in the tracks,” said Sukumar. “It’s puzzling why this highly intelligent animal would wait on the tracks when it can even feel the vibration of the train’s movement.”