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
This is a key to finding a holistic solution to Man-Elephant Conflict of any kind. Also, one can have the power over prevention of any future mishaps and consequent loss to the Habitat, Elephant Population, Human Life and Property. Except professional shikaries or poachers, nobody had tracked herds of elephants over a large tract of jungle or landscape in the North East India.
The movements of elephants driven by energy needs, seasonal availability of nutrients in the various Forest Types, water and carrying capacity of the species in a landscape. Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) of the North East India are very selective feeders. As for example, while they go as a whole for new sprouts in a post burned Terai-Bhabar grasslands in Manas National Park. But leave the abundant Tora (Elephant Grass or Alpinia allaughas) plants till the mid August. The Simul Tree (Bombax ceiba) barks are not sloughed off and eaten till December-January.2 The habitats as per major forest types have different levels of productivity. The Moist Deciduous (3C1) forests have the maximum productivity whereas the Tropical Wet Evergreen (1C1(a) and 1C1(b)) is endowed with the least productivity. No wonder, the Nahor and the Hollong take so long to grow. When we find that the forest types evolve towards a climax stages of Semi-Evergreen to Evergreen types, they can behave negatively towards the elephant population, which is largely terrestrial. Maximum Distance Moved by elephants are governed by their mass, Field Metabolic Rate (FMR) and to certain extent, the terrain and geographical attributes. In a scientific study undertaken in South Africa, the elephants were reportedly found to consume 80% to 120% of their body weight per day per individual in a herd. If this as applicable in Indian Situation, a herd composed of 50 large elephants may need a minimum of 80-176 ton of forage per day. Considering three such herds in a small fragmented habitat, the requirement would be three fold. Now, all forests are not that productive and degradations of various levels do exist and naturally the cycle of movement becomes smaller. Resultant low regeneration of utilized habitat degrades quickly with anthropological pressure. Downstream development is that of loss of water regime. This cycle has become vicious over the years.
The south bank and the North bank elephant movement scenario depends upon the Hills-Valley-Hills continuum for survival of elephants. Elephants from the Khasi and Garo Hills traditionally descended to large water bodies like the Deepor (Sanskrit Deep, for elephant) Beel of Kamrup and Urpad in Goalpara in the months following the month of April and remaining in the vicinity till the advent of the Autumn Season. Thereafter, they become dependent upon the jungle habitats of the hills till April, completing a cycle. A valley-valley migration of the elephants through the jungle of the plains were earlier known but never documented well enough. Till the Guwahati-Goalpara railway tracks carry on or herds frequenting the Deepor and Urpad wetlands vanish for some reason, the train locomotives will cause mortality to these hapless animals. If one wanted to avoid collisions, there should not be any trains running on the tracks between sunset and sunrise. Data available on train smashing up elephants show 100% cases happen in the night and are caused by speeding goods trains. Hill-Hill-valley-Hill configuration of movement is difficult and time consuming. But the informed sources who were jungle dwelling hunters in Karbi Anglong; say that such movements took elephants from the Karbi-Anglong to Khasi Hills areas. Some important crossing points are also gone; those who can remember that Ninth Mile-Jorabat section of the road was frequented by elephants which eventually went to Amchang, Chandrapur, digaru then into Khasi hills and may be to Nagaon jungles beyond the Kiling River.
Smash ups: The Raison d’etre
It is not known how many wild animals were encountered daily ad hunted down with much ado and bravado while the train lines were swathed through the various jungles to upper Assam via both the banks of the river Brahmaputra. It is on record that a British road builder always hunted down big games prior to his breakfat!”. For the Railway engineers, Tea-planters and Foresters; the triune bred by the British Raj there were common factors: the elephant herds, Tigers and leopards. They were the occupational hazards too. However, there were government prize money of Rs. 25 for a Tiger and Rs. 5 for a leopard that were hunted down. This was hiked from earlier Rs. 5 and 2 Rs. 8. Annas for a hunted tiger and a leopard respectively since 1870. This was a result of Imperial design of Agricultural expansion (read Tea growing)3. The elephant could be hunted under Elephant Control Licence. Late David Long Enghee, a legendary Karbi gentleman from Amreng area under Hamren Sub Division, who was a Travelling Ticket Examiner in the Railway Department has an unbroken record of shooting 300 elephants under elephant control licence. Many were tuskers with large sized tusks. Surviving photographs show that certain tusks were taller than him in length.4 The majestic pachyderms were sources of Revenue for the Colonial Economy. As for example, the organized Mela-Shikar or Khedda earned Rs. 3,02,836 between 1875-1900. The estimated export price of an elephant in 1835 AD was Rs. 300 only. Though the earnings were initially put under the head of Minor Forest Produce they were a kind of precious property of the crown after all.
This brings us to the topic of ecological valuation of an elephant or a elephant population in Assam. This is pertinent for us to know in terms of valuation in USD or Euro or INR otherwise the insensate factors will neither listen nor understand a bit of elephant conservation. Though such studies in conservation of landscapes have been made in many ways, direct valuation of species is not done so far. The last known ad-valorem rate of Royalty for a species is that of Great Indian Rhinoceros in Assam. That was Rs. 5.00 lakhs per animal (1983)5. If the wildlife enthusiasts need to find a way, this can be good handle for enforcing elephant conservation measures. The animals like the elephants are the product and function of the habitat. If we found out the entire ecosystems services and the carbon sequestration (Going rate is USD300.00 per tone) that the habitat is producing plus the commercial value; the resident population of the habitat would be of that many USD or Euro Or INR worth. That is, even after leaving aside the genetic and other values. Some sense of whooping economic loss can be attributed to the carelessness of the railways and erring jungle keepers can be inculcated. In such cases, the sense of economic responsibility may be stupendous enough to make policy makers stand up, listen and do something positive and practical. At least, the worthiness of the species will prevail (Lord Ganesha must be smiling!).
The railway-lines on the south bank is the major offender. The track is bang on the many crossing points in an elephant habitat however fragmented. The Goalpara-Panikhaiti stretch notwighstanding, the same track goes through the MaratLongri-Dhansiri RF junction. Dhansiri has broken contiguity with nearby Doldoli RF (From ‘slushy area’) and fareway Nambor to the North through civil and USF hills areas. The Kaziranga National Park and these areas are connected via a slim corridor at Panbari RF area. The over the hill view to the south of Bagori Range of KNP gives us the Dejoo Valley area. One of the earliest RF’s Dejoo Valley North and South are here. From the Forestry point of view, this is the eastern culminating point of Shorea robusta (Dipterocarpaceae) from its western limit of Mohand near Dehradun. But, according to the working plans and reserve register of the undivided Nagaon Division, both of the RF’s were de-reserved to a large extent. Now, a missile storage facility is being planned within the South Dejoo RF. This proposal was dealt with by CWLW of Assam’s office sometime in 2007-08. The further fate is not known to this writer. The point emphasized here is that connectivity from KNP is lost via Dejoo Valley. At this moment, there are several big and small tea gardens in that valley including Amlakhi, Dejoo Valley, Lengteng, Kellyden and so on. Even establishments of tea gardens like the Behora, Sekonee, Hatikhulie are obvious signs of historical mistakes. Vast fields of paddy at the Nagaon District side of the Parkup Pahar had been marauded by elephant herds since 1980’s. With earlier history of extensive forest operation under lease system and recurring jhumming even in PRFs, the elephant habitat in Karbi Anglong is not what that used to be in the late 1970’s. Whatever remained has supported, with dwindling efficiency, a population of elephants which have to frequently cross the railway line cutting like parabola through it. The frequency of locomotives with high speed and traction has gone up. The traditional crossing points do not attempt crossing at any point of the track at any time. Therefore the future has grave portents. Antagonizemnt caused by introduction of Railway line can go away only when the Railway lines are removed. This, everybody will agree, is not possible.
As suggested earlier, the following exercises would help in short in short and long term.
1. Tracking teams on elephant back, equipped with Global Positioning System, Solar charged Laptops and camera should track the elephant movement in the habitat (It is true for Assam). It will generate the data seasonal and diurnal, of approach to any area. This will be helpful in long term conservation planning versus any developmental activity.
2. Immediate organization of a group, paid against a time bound hectic project to know the ecological valuation of elephant population in Assam.
3. Formulation of ideas on the basis of the other two enumerated above.
4. Get Lungding-Dhansiri-Itanki ER under MIKE site with immediate effect.
One must not take what he cannot give back. Humanity has taken toll of countless lives of species across the globe. Humanity is not humanity when it cannot perform the basic task of giving what it took away for fun or fancy or whatever. Antagonizement by animals is a misunderstanding by and of man. To understand conservation is to understand relationships with one and all of the creation. This is central to the human survival. Future generations of humans are dependent upon efficient and same functioning of present generations. For development and spiritual growth, the future generations are privy to all things unharmed and as they were of Nature. Only then, the humanity will live forever thorough generations of perfect offspring.
1. The District Gazetteer of Kamrup, 1910.
2. Independent Observations made by the writer during the period 1991-95 and 2001-2005.
3. # and 3, From ‘Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife’, A History of Forests in Assam by Arupjyoti Saikis, Page 261. Wildlife Areas Development and Welfare Trust.
4. From “In memory of our father David Long Enghee” by Sar Roy Enghee, Self financed booklet.
5. Late William Allen Rodgers, 1989, WII, New Forest, Dehradun, Pers. Comm..
6. Letter from W.L Blunt and WFL Tottenham : Conservators to the Chief Commissioner of Assam, 4 September 1918 ASP, No 107-133, Finance Department, Forest-A, July 1919 (ASA)
7. B.N. Talukdar, AFS, 2008, Pers. Comm..
8. Working Plans of Nagaon Division 1973-1983, by PC Gogoi.
9. Reserve Register, Nagaon Division, (Contd).
* Article republished from Biolink July 2019 issue.
About the Author:
Abhijit Rabha, IFS.
Author recently working as PCCF of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council also formerly he was the Conservator of Forests & Field Director, Manas Reserve and Conservator of forests, Western Assam Circle.