This Ganesh Chaturthi as hundreds of Indians pay obeisance to the elephant god, elephant herds will be battling for their lives in north Bengal.
At a meeting held in June, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared the decks for the expansion of a railway line that passes through the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary, linking Sevoke in Siliguri with Rangpo in Sikkim—a notorious killer track which has seen elephants and their calves being crushed to death in large numbers by speeding trains.
The decision came after noted elephant biologist Raman Sukumar, an NBWL member, informed the board that “there is hardly any elephant habitat after Sevoke". What the noted elephant scientist seems to have missed is that on the existing railway track, more than 55 elephant deaths have already occurred between 2004 and 2015 so far.
Some of the most tragic elephant deaths have happened on this stretch; in September 2010, seven elephants were mowed down while trying to save a calf from a speeding train, triggering a stern warning from then environment minister Jairam Ramesh to the railways for not following safety measures.
Clearly no lessons were learnt. In yet another incident in November 2013, this time near Jalpaiguri, five adults and two calves were killed by a speeding train, with at least 10 elephants that were part of the herd injured.
Oddly enough a landmark study co-authored by Sukumar titled Right of Passage, published in 2004, dubs this very region of north Bengal as an elephant corridor. While recognizing “fragmentation of habitat" here as “most severe", it goes on to state that the presence of the railway line was one of the “threats" to the elephant population here. The study, which was published by the Wildlife Trust of India, is considered to be the most comprehensive documentation of elephant corridors in the country.
Sukumar, in an email response to this writer, stood his ground that the area in question is not an elephant corridor. Besides, “the proposed railway line from Sevoke in West Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim will be mostly underground", he pointed out. But he did admit that the increased frequency of trains could cause problems for a stretch that has seen many accidents, which he said is a “bigger problem to be tackled urgently across the entire northern Bengal".
Now take a look at what this expansion will entail: the construction of a new broad gauge railway line from Sevoke in northern West Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim will pass through 32 hectares of the Mahananda sanctuary, through the reserve forests of Darjeeling and east Sikkim, along the western bank of the Teesta river, and will then cut through National Highway 31A.
Additionally, 14 tunnels will be dug, with a total length of almost 32km, comprising an astounding 72% of the entire route. The proposed track will pass through an important site for Asiatic elephants, leopards, Asiatic black bears, wild dogs, gaur and a near-isolated tiger population.
The proposed expansion will also pass through the Gorumara-Jaldapara-Buxa landscape, which is contiguous with the forests of Bhutan. NBWL has also given clearances for cutting forests on 86.63 hectares by the railways for construction of the line.
Mincing no words, noted wildlife expert Bittu Sahgal said: “Sadly some field biologists have taken to throwing the precautionary principle to the winds to win ephemeral popularity with developers and decision-makers at the cost of life-saving wildernesses that support elephants, tigers, rhinos."
Once consisting of people who passionately defended wildlife, today NBWL seems to have been reduced to a toothless body with no one willing to raise their voice.
Ironically, the same NBWL, which denies this is an elephant habitat, has also gone on to prescribe a number of measures to be introduced “such as speed restriction for trains, adopting technologies like wireless animal tracking system and satellite-based navigation system".
Why prescribe safety measures if there is a denial of the existence of elephants? And these suggestions would be welcome if the railways took them seriously. Indian Railways has in the past a notorious record of being oblivious to wildlife, either by bifurcating wild habitats or speeding through wildlife sanctuaries despite restrictions.
Little wonder then that the Elephant Task Force report commissioned by the environment ministry in 2010 noted over 150 elephant deaths since 1987 on India’s rail tracks.
Of course it is unfair for wildlife conservationists to blindly ask for rejection of all projects, so in this case an alternative route was suggested, which would be less damaging to wildlife. But the alternative route was never even considered. And that’s why as the railways goes ahead with its plans, be prepared for more jumbo deaths on the killer tracks of north Bengal.
Meanwhile what is desperately needed—elephant scientists who will speak up for the gentle giants.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.