- With the creation of the third railway line through the Palamu Tiger Reserve in Jharkhand, the number of trains will increase, making it difficult for elephants to cross over.
- Unable to cross the area because of the railway track, elephants will begin entering nearby villages during their seasonal movement, increasing human-elephant interactions and conflict.
- Between 2015 and 2018, 49 elephants were killed in train accidents (nine in 2015-16; 21 in 2016-17; 19 in 2017-18). Elephant raids are common in Jharkhand, especially during the paddy harvest season.
In the eastern state of Jharkhand, elephant raids are common, especially during the paddy harvest season. The state is experimenting with mitigation measures like sending warnings to villagers about elephant presence via a WhatsApp group. But the creation of another railway line that intersects through the critical core habitat of the Palamu Tiger Reserve (PTR) could aggravate the situation.
“There are already two existing railway lines on this section and a third line is now being added,” said Daltonganj-based elephant expert D.S. Srivastava, who is a member of the state steering committee, PTR. According to Srivastava, there is considerable elephant movement through this section as elephants move from Baresarh in Latehar district in Jharkhand to the Betla National Park, which is a part of PTR, from March to April and August to September.
Originally, the railway track from Sonnagar to Patratu was created in 1924 to transport coal. Then, a second one was added. “The (upcoming) third line is only meant for coal transportation from the North Karanpura coal block, which lies in the adjacent Chatra and Hazaribagh districts,” added Srivastava.
With the creation of the third line, the number of trains will increase, making it difficult for large animals to cross over. Currently, 34 up and down passenger trains and 60 goods trains run through this critical section daily. The existing double line, which is electrified, crosses 10 km from the core area of the Palamu Tiger Reserve. Right now, there is an interval of eight minutes between two trains and after the third line starts functioning, the gap will be reduced to five minutes. Srivastava pointed out that approximately 224 trains will run on this section after the third line comes up.
Rajesh Kumar, chief public relations officer, East Central Railways, confirmed that a third rail line is being built from Sonnagar to Patratu (291 km), an important section of the East Central Railways. “It is historically called the CIC section and a lot of coal mines are situated in Hazaribagh and Palamu in the vicinity. So, the railway board has sanctioned this third line project for coal evacuation. The line will start from Sonnagar and end in Patratu. The project is being executed by the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL).”
Sources in RVNL, Ranchi, said that construction work in Palamu Tiger Reserve has not started yet as clearances are awaited. From Sonnagar side though, the work has begun.
The new line will aggravate the human-elephant interactions, said Srivastava. Unable to cross the area because of the railway track, elephants will begin entering nearby villages. Throughout the year, about 50 elephants will be confined in just 25 sq km area of Betla range forests, he explained.
According to some Jharkhand forest department sources, trees have been marked for felling for the construction of the third line.
Additionally, an official from the neighbouring Chhattisgarh forest department told Mongabay-India that forest clearance has not been applied for as yet for the third line, but construction has begun in the non-forest areas. There are some patches that do not come under the forest department or PTR. However, the source confirmed through the help of satellite super zooming that fencing work is on. If forest clearance has not come yet and work is on, it is a violation, he pointed out.
Across India’s 101 elephant corridors, human-elephant interactions regularly lead to conflict. To resolve this, several measures have been introduced, from changing crop patterns to the introduction of early warning systems, to thwart jumbo attacks and protect lives. Securing the “right of passage” for elephants is critical for conservation, especially at a time when fragmentation of forests and habitat loss are threatening their existence.
According to Ananda Kumar, scientist with Mysuru-based wildlife research organisation Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), indiscriminate infrastructure development through prime forest areas will have a detrimental impact on India’s wildlife, including elephants.
Between 2015 and 2018, 49 elephants were killed in train accidents (nine in 2015-16; 21 in 2016-17; 19 in 2017-18).
Third railway line
In addition to the elephants that come from Baresarh, crossing the existing train tracks through a 200-metre stretch, there is also tiger movement in this area, informed Anil Kumar, who works with Srivastava at the Daltonganj-based non-profit Nature Conservation Society.
Last year, fencing work in the Kechki area of the reserve started and about 1 kilometre was completed, which prompted the elephant expert to send a letter to the Jharkhand forest department. A portion of the fence passing through the sanctuary area was removed afterwards with sources in the forest department informing that the barbed wire fencing was removed after the issue was raised.
“Fencing obstructs animal movement. What is the rationale behind the new line?” Srivastava questioned. According to the elephant expert, the forest must be protected at all costs. “We cannot openly do developmental activities by ruining forests,” he added.
A forest department official, on the condition of anonymity, said that the land has been with the Indian railways for a long time. In 1920s, elephants were first spotted in Betla. As their population is increasing, they are being chased for creating a disturbance. Sometimes, elephants display aggressive behaviour when attracted by the smell of mahua, but most people have a wrong conception about these animals. According to him, the third line will shorten connectivity from Ranchi by four hours.
According to R.K. Srivastava, former director of Project Elephant, the railways are cooperating and the state forest departments of Assam, Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal are all working together. But in the mosaic landscapes interspersed with paddy fields, tea plantations and jungles, it is difficult to predict where elephants will appear. “We are all trying our best, but yet deaths do take place,” he admitted. According to a lower-rank forest department official of Jharkhand, though work on the third rail line is stuck for the time being in the forest areas, activity is on in the non-forested areas and even there the track will disturb elephant movement.
Tito Joseph, programme manager of Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society, said that wherever possible we should minimise infrastructure development in protected forest areas across India. Even if the project cost escalates due to diversions, if we can protect natural habitats by doing so, it will be the best, he said.
The entire Palamu tiger reserve is spread over an area of 1315 square kilometres and spans across both Palamu and Latehar districts of Jharkhand. To mitigate the crisis to some extent, Srivastava has proposed the aligning of the new track along the National-Highway 75 bypassing PTR.
Nitin Sekar, coordinator, elephant conservation programme, WWF-India, said that improving detection of elephants and other wildlife along identified stretches when they are on or near the tracks soon enough to slow down trains is important in saving lives. In short, stretches of tracks that are known to be frequented by wildlife systems like motion detectors, seismic sensors and so forth, could be more effective than patrols, but they are still experimental and expensive. For longer stretches of tracks in elephant-frequented areas, none of the above suggestions is likely to be viable, as they would be too expensive or would require too much manpower. He suggested that detection could be improved with better lighting on engines, like fog lights that improve visibility, and directional lighting systems, which redirect the headlights in the direction the train is moving.
“Railways employees have deep affection for elephants. Loco pilots don’t want the trauma of hitting or killing elephants in the course of their work. But the Indian Railways also faces pressure to increase the speed and timeliness of the delivery of people and goods. They are in a tough spot on the issue of train-elephant collisions. The railways have expressed a real interest in terms of solutions, but the civil society and scientists need to work more closely with the railways to find technological and institutional improvements to save elephant lives while also at the same time minimising disruptions,” Sekar wrote to Mongabay-India via an email.
When contacted, Y. K. Das, field director, Palamu, said that the department is working for the cause of PTR and the rest depends on the state government.
Banner image: The existing double railway line running through the Palamu Tiger Reserve. The proposed third line will make movement of wild animals difficult. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.