We are the masters of our planet, but we’re not very good masters for our activities to further our own interests with no regard to the consequences have caused severe damage. India is one of the 17 mega biodiverse regions of the world. The forest cover in India is 21.3% of the total geographic area of the country out of which 4.89% comes under protected area coverage which includes 103 National Parks, 536 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 67 conservation reserves and 26 community reserves. These forests are home to thousands of floral and faunal species of wildlife.
However, in most of these forests linear intrusions of Railways, roadways, power lines have led to habitat fragmentation, degradation of habitat, animal mortality, environmental pollution and deforestation. Wildlife require
contiguity in their habitat and any break or barrier is detrimental to their survival.
Railways is one of the most environment friendly modes of transport when compared to roads or airways. But this is true when it comes to energy efficiency and carbon emissions. Constructing railway lines through forest has a negative impact during construction and later while operating trains on these tracks.
During the British Raj, spread of Railways proved deadly for Indian forests. Railways were essential for colonial trade and the movement of imperial troops. To run steam locomotives, wood was needed as fuel and wooden sleepers were needed to hold the tracks together. As the railway network expanded, government contractors began cutting trees indiscriminately. In Madras Presidency alone, approximately 35,000 trees were cut annually to make sleepers. Forests around railway tracks started disappearing.
Coming back to recent times, train operations in forests have led to massive animal mortality on tracks. Trains cause mortality by direct collision, entrapment or electrocution. Elephants have unfortunately been at the receiving end of this. Between 2014-2017, more than 40 Elephants have been killed in various parts of the country. The number rises to more than 200 in the past two and a half decades.
Apart from elephants, many other wildlife species like tigers, lions, leopards, rhinoceros, sloth bears, gaurs, wild boar, chital, hog deer, barking deer, blue bull, sambar etc have been casualties on tracks. Many of these species are listed as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ under the IUCN red list and protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Animal run-overs also result in damage to locomotives, long delays, possible derailments, obstruction of lines. In absence of advanced technology or mitigation strategies, more speed restrictions have to be introduced in such areas which result in even more delays.
These numbers are alarming. Therefore, it is essential to take steps to mitigate the impact of linear intrusions of Railways in these ecologically sensitive areas.
The Case of Indian Elephants
The Indian Elephant (Elephas Maximus Indicus) is one of the three subspecies of the Asian Elephant and native to mainland Asia. It’s population in India is approximately 20,000- 25,000 and is classified as endangered by the IUCN. It is the National Heritage Animal of India and also the Mascot of Indian Railways (Ironically). They are incredibly intelligent, sensitive, social and conscious animals. They have matriarchal families or clans which migrate together between dry and wet seasons. They migrate through set routes and therefore, their migratory patterns are predictable to some extent.
Because of their big and bulky bodies, they are slow moving animals and while crossing elevated tracks they are not able to climb down quickly when the train approaches. Also, the elders in the clan are very protective of the calves. Sensing danger, their tendency is to encircle and surround the calves instead of moving to safer territory. This leads to many members of the clan come on to the track and the collision unfortunately, leads to numerous casualties and injuries. Such incidences are extremely heartbreaking.
Fortunately, there are many measure which can be adopted to avoid these unfortunate animal run-overs.
Wildlife crossings or bridges are pathways in the form of overpasses, underpasses or canopy bridges that help animals pass from one side of the track or highway to another. The type and specification of these crossings depend on the type of fauna found in the area and the features necessary to facilitate the natural movement of animals.
Overpasses or land bridges extend above railway tracks and highways. They are typically enhanced with habitat features such as native vegetation, rocks and logs so that animals feel them as a part of their own habitat and not a foreign structure. They support a wide variety of fauna and are specially suited for bigger animals. These overpasses can be supplemented with fencing so that animals are directed towards these crossings. Banff National Park, Canada has successfully constructed overpasses on highways and scientifically studied their effectiveness. Researches show that there’s a ‘learning curve’ and animals need time to acclimate to the structures before they feel comfortable using them.
Underpasses (Box and Pipe culverts)
Underpasses are structures that go under the linear infrastructure to provide passage to animals. They can be square or rectangular (box culverts) or for smaller animals pipe culverts can be constructed. Like overpasses, they must be enhanced with native vegetation. The design and specifications must ensure proper ventilation, natural light within these structures so that animals feel comfortable using them.
Elevated tracks through forested areas allowing for passage of fauna below is also a viable option.
With Indian Railways moving towards higher speeds on the existing network, fencing on both sides of tracks is essential to run the trains safely. Whilst complete fencing is not advisable in forest areas as it breaks
the contiguity of habitat, in critical areas (specially on curves) fencing can be introduced. Also, a combination of wildlife crossings and fencing can be done to direct wildlife towards these crossings.
Where the tracks are somewhat elevated from the surrounding area, leveling must be done so that large animals such as elephants can easily climb and cross the tracks. In the absence of this measure, animals find it harder to come down from the tracks when the train approaches and collision takes place. This has been adopted in the Palakkad-podanur section of Southern Railway.
Non- structural technological solutions
A more successful technique, which has been confirmed to reduce collisions. Olfactory repellents make use of “a mix of scents from humans, wolves and other predators” which are injected into a foam and applied on structures in the vicinity of roads and railways. This method was demonstrated to increase attentiveness and awareness of danger in animals.
In 2004, the Polish National Railway (PKP) introduced UOZ-1, or “key stimuli proxy”, a device emitting acoustic signals (natural animal calls) which create a fear factor in animals, deterring them from approaching the tracks without chasing them out of their habitat. In a study, it was found to have material effect on wild animals (86% escaped) without any habituation of animals to warning signals.
North Frontier Railway has recently tried using ‘Bee’ sounds to deter elephants from approaching the tracks. It is based on the fact that Elephants, despite of their large size, are afraid of bees and the buzzing sound is likely to chase them away.
Animal Detection Systems
Such systems use sensors, radio signals to detect the presence of wild animals and alert the driver to slow down or stop the train. Area cover systems detect large animals within a certain range of sensors while break-the-beam systems detect animals when their bodies block or reduce a beam of radio signals from transmitter to receiver. Extensive research on such project is under way in Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand. It is yielding positive results.
But such systems can only detect large animals, smaller animals are harder to detect.
Common Sense Measures
Wildlife Crossing Warning Signs
Clearing vegetation around blind curves
Cleanliness around tracks in protected areas
There must be complete prohibition to throw stuff on to the tracks while trains move through forests. Appropriate warnings must be given both to passengers and catering staff. This is because food stuff thrown on to the tracks attracts wild animals and this makes them vulnerable to run overs.
Lastly, it is essential to educate and sensitize staff and officers of railways who are involved in train operations and infrastructure development so that measures taken from the stage of planning to execution to operations can be successfully implemented. A detailed Wildlife Risk Mitigation plan must be prepared before works for new lines through forests are executed so that measures are taken beforehand. Alternative routes must be explored to avoid protected areas as much as possible. Railways has always claimed RIGHT OF WAY and exemption from the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Indian Wildlife Act, 1972 but recent events involving the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Law Ministry have made it clear that no exemption is available even where Railways owns forest land.
Indian Railways is an essential part of the Government of India and therefore, it has an obligation towards the environment, forests and biodiversity of the country.
Gandhi ji said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’, therefore there must be a fine balance between economic development and protection of nature and environment.
(Written by Siddhartha Verma, IRTS)
(Special credits to the book “Eco-friendly measures to mitigate impact of Linear Infrastructure on wildlife” published by Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun)