Train-Elephant Mishaps: The Causes of Present and Future Mortalities

Text by Abhijit Rabha, IFS

Photo: Udayan Borthakur


No Matter how revered are our elephants from the socio-religious viewpoint, developmental activities, must remember, are thick skinned and thick headed to the issues and ethos of conservation. It was lamented by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) that even after the term ‘Conservation’ was defined precisely in the World Conservation Strategy in 1984, the powers that be in the world, could not implement that even after the passage of the year 2K. This is the era when information is precious; speed is required to give everything a premium service. Also, there are markets at global, regional and local levels which are insensate to the emotional factors that kept our animals safe through centuries. Man-Elephant issue used to be that of co-existence in the North Eastern India. The coming of the Colonial era saw large acreage of forests being felled for raising extensive tea plantations, having a subsidiary ply-wood industry for tea-packaging, laying railway tracks to transport out the tea-chests and so on. The railway tracks needed clearance through the unbroken continuous jungles, the iron-steamer route from the upper Assam to Calcutta also took part in tea-transportation, the steam driven paddle boats required huge amounts of firewood or coal. The ultimate impacts were on the green cover and the animals therein. The simple job of encouraging settlement in extensive areas in Kamrup District of the yore cost the colonial government over a lakh rupees in 19101, to pay the compensation for man wildlife conflict. Environmental costs could have been considerable for running colonial economy and structure. Till late 50’s, there were no diesel locomotives in the North East Frontier Railways. However, the major work force was steam driven and slow meter gauge engines which spanned from New Bongaigaon to Upper Assam on both the banks of the Brahmaputra. Low speed, inherent jerky motion and difficulty in track maintenance kept the forward speed low and many collisions with elephants were possibly averted. Further, the frequency of trains were very low. Added to this was the pristinity of jungles which afforded very good habitat and shelter for elephants.

Key words : Migration, conservation, Elephas maximus development, Locomotive engines.

Materials and Methods

The primary data available with the Divisional Forest Officers of Goalpara, Kamrup East, Guwahati Wildlife Division, Sonitpur East Division, Karbi Anglong East and Karbi Anglong West Divisions of KAAC, Jorhat, Golaghat, Digboi, Tinsukia and Dibrugarh Divisions were collected and compiled in the office of the CWLW, Assam. These were subjected to GIS analysis. Analysis showed that the crossing points on the tracks definitely belonged to traditional movement patterns. In many new cases, due to degradation of habitat, the new collision points could be explained. Literatures available were studied in historical perspective. This indicated that the problem started with the introduction of Tea Cultivation and the Railway Tracks in the elephant habitat areas. In the height of elephant catching in Assam, the elephant population fell to about 3610 in 1917-18. It did not find much favour with the forestry fraternity.6 The present day figure is put around 5100 individuals7. This is probably due to absence of licensed hunting and reasonable degree of ivory poaching.

Understanding Elephant Movements