Two railway tracks have become death-traps for wild elephants in the Nilgiris

A Geographical Information System (GIS) published last month showed that railway lines deep inside the Nilgiris forests were cutting through elephant corridors, blocking the elephants’ access to water bodies.
Carcasses of two elephants that were hit by a train
Carcasses of two elephants that were hit by a train

November 26 was a tragic day in the Nilgiris forests. A female elephant and two calves were killed by a moving train near Ettimadai on the outskirts of Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore. It is believed that the wild elephants were crossing the railway track at Mavuthampathy village to reach the Walayar river on the other side. But they died on the spot when the Chennai Mail going from Mangaluru towards Chennai hit them as they were crossing the tracks.

Since 1978, over 25 elephants have been killed by trains on this stretch in the Nilgiris, 14 of them killed just between 2016 and December 2021, as per records from the Palakkad Division of Southern Railways. The reason has been identified as two badly placed railway tracks – running between Kanjikode in Kerala and Madukkarai in Tamil Nadu (Line B) and Walayar to Ettimadai (Line A). They cut right through the elephant corridor in the Nilgiris and this forces the animals to cross the tracks to reach water bodies.

Now, a Geographical Information System (GIS) study done by Dayanand Krishnan, GIS expert, and R Pandiarajan, a civil engineer and RTI activist, offers more insights into the pattern of the elephant deaths. The study, published last month, uses images from Google Maps and superimposes the two railway tracks on the images to identify why their positioning is flawed and puts wild elephants at risk.

In July 2021, Dayanand and Pandiarajan filed an RTI with Southern Railways to understand certain crucial details on the elephant accidents happening in the sector. “We asked them for specific inputs such as a) the chainage distance of each accident from the nearest railway station, b) month and date of the accident and c) time of the accident. This is to understand the different reasons for the elephants to cross the track, if there are monthly or seasonal pattern shifts in the movement of these herds, etc,” Dayanand, who did the GIS mapping for the study, explains to TNM.

These details, Dayanand says, would make it easier to mark the exact stretches along the tracks (3-4 km) that are most vulnerable for the elephants. Using the inputs received from the RTI response, Dayanand marked the eight accident spots on lines A and B on the map. But when the three elephants were killed in November on the same track (B), Dayanand and Pandiarajan began asking more questions about the accidents.

“We wanted to know what motivated these elephants to cross the railway tracks. In our search for answers, we found out that the sections where the train was running, from Kanjikode to Madukkarai, was an extension of the Nilgiris biosphere reserve,” he adds.

Tracks running through reserve forest

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve falls within the Western Ghats and is spread across Wayanad, Nagarhole, Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nilambur, Silent Valley and Siruvani Hills, cutting across three states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The reserve area is divided into many zones. There is a Core Zone of 1,240 sq km (which includes the core reserve forest area). Then comes the Manipulation or Forestry Zone of 3,239 sq km. Surrounding this is the Tourism Zone of 335 sq km and the Restoration Zone of 706 sq km. Totally, the entire reserve area is spread over 5,520 sq km.

Ettimadai, Walayar, Kanjikode and Madukkarai fall to the south-east of the Siruvani Hills. It is here that the two tracks, Line A and B operated by Southern Railways, lie. While line A was laid in 1861 and runs from Podanur in Tamil Nadu to Palakkad in Kerala, line B was built only in 1974 and runs from Palakkad to Podanur. While line A is 48.26 km long in total, line B is 52.55 km long and has eight stations.

Both the GIS study and the hearing earlier this year before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) pointed out that a significant chunk of both lines A and B lie within the forest. As per the study, 90% of line B from Kanjikode station to Madukkarai station section and 60% of line A between Walayar and Ettimadai stations fall under the Forestry and Restoration zones of the Nilgiris biosphere.

This means that 17 km of line A has been built in the reserve forest, between Chullimada-Madukkarai stations, and 23 km of line B has been built in the forest between Madukkarai and Kanjikode, severely threatening wild elephant habitats.

Tracks block access to water bodies

Alarmingly, multiple stretches of the railway lines are elephant passages – where elephants regularly cross in herds to drink water. This increases the chances of them encountering trains.

Elephants congregate at natural water bodies in herds. A quick look at the images from the GIS study shows that the water bodies in the vicinity are the Walayar river, which feeds the Walayar lake further south. A look at three spots where accidents have taken place (E2, E6 and E8) show that all of these spots are near the course of the river, just 200 km away on line B.

From the images, it is also clear that line B runs north to south along the course of the Walayar river, leaving the elephants with no choice but to cross the track. Similarly line A too blocks access for elephants from the north-west parts of the forest to Walayar lake.

Poor visibility kills elephants

Poor visibility inside deep forest terrains is also cited as a reason for accidents and deaths of elephants. The recent elephant accident site near Mavuthampathy too is just 400 metres from a dense forest zone.

The authors of the GIS study simulated a time lapse of the forest area at 6 am, 9 am, 5 pm and midnight at the accident site to show how poor visibility is during night time and early morning in the area. The study urges the NGT to shift the night time train operations (6 pm to 6 am) from Palakkad to Coimbatore via Pollachi as a stop-gap measure.

Along the Kanjikode to Madukkarai A and B lines, the study also recommends thermal imaging camera surveillance with Artificial Intelligence to send automatic alerts to railway control rooms, or any other climate adaptive camera surveillance system with automatic alerts.

Elaborating on the recommendations, Dayanand says, “Poor visibility has been cited as the biggest reason for not spotting elephants. Even in the most recent accident, it was said that there was a curve in the track because of which the elephants were not visible. However, the curve was a very minor one and the loco pilot must have increased the speed after crossing the forest stretch. This led to the elephant being dragged 130 metres after being hit. The accident happened just 400 metres from a dense forest region. It could have been avoided if the loco pilots had thermal scanners. If they cannot afford that, at least give the co-drivers thermal binoculars so that they can alert the driver on spotting any elephants.”

What Railways is doing

It is not that the government is unaware that the badly positioned tracks are extremely dangerous for the elephants. The Palakkad Division of Southern Railways has identified points on both lines A and B where Permanent Speed Restrictions (PSR) of 45 km/hr from 6 pm to 6 am have been announced. These include stretches between Madukkarai, Ettimadai, Kanjikode, Palakkad, Kottekad and other stations.

Apart from speed restrictions, the Southern Railways has also taken up various measures to save elephants in the stretch, including:

  1. Setting up sign boards to warn train drivers of elephant passages
  2. Train drivers instructed to continuously whistle to warn elephants
  3. In the Kerala section of the reserve forest, solar fencing at ground level with safe electric voltage of 12 volts has been provided for a length of 7.1 km on B line near railway track area and 3.2 km on A line to deter elephants, which has proven to be effective
  4. Solar lights have been set up at two places between Kanjikode and Walayar to ward away elephants
  5. Audio alarms with honey bee sounds have been set up at a level crossing between Kanjikode and Walayar on A line to ward off elephants.

Dayanand, however, says that building an electrified fence with low voltage current was a bad idea as it forces the wild elephants to change the pattern of their movement. “Shifting wildlife movement is not a good idea. If the elephants are unable to cross, then they might even go to the nearest human habitation because they want to find water,” he says.

Meanwhile, activists have been urging for years that line B be removed altogether to reduce elephant deaths but Southern Railways has refused to do so.

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