A high-speed train hit a herd of elephants crossing the Titabor railway track in Assam’s Jorhat district on the night of October 9. But the third pachyderm, another female, escaped unhurt.
The impact caused the elephant, which suffered injuries to both hind legs, into a small stream. The cold water eased her pain, and the buoyancy of the water kept her afloat, putting less pressure on her legs, experts said.
In the morning, the news of the accident as the injured elephant’s painful cries reached the nearby villages. Hundreds gathered at the scene. Soon after, local television channel crews arrived and began broadcasting footage of the injured animal lying in the creek.
Questions have been raised about the failure of the state forest department and railway authorities to prevent such accidents and treat the injured animal by shifting it to another place. The arrival of the elected representatives at the site added pressure on the officials to move the elephant from the site.
A small crane was initially brought in to lift the elephant, but when that failed, a larger hydraulic crane owned by the Oil and Natural Gas Company was brought in, finally on October 11, about 42 hours after the accident. 6- In a rescue attempt that took hours, the elephant was lifted from the river, put on a truck and taken to Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Jorhat district for treatment and rehabilitation.
But the injuries sustained in the accident, delays in initial treatment and rescue attempts, including tying all the legs with ropes and lifting them up, were too much for the pachyderm, and she died. within hours of its arrival. the wild place.
Death on roads and streets
Although this incident was the last to make headlines in Assam, it was not the only one. Every year, many animals, including elephants and, sometimes, rhinoceros, are killed as they cross roads or railway tracks in search of food or to escape floods.
On October 8, a day before the train hit a herd of elephants, a rhino trying to cross the NH 715 that passes through Kaziranga National Park was hit by a speeding vehicle in Haldhibari. The breath managed to get up and walk. Three days later, The drone footage showed the rhino alive and well.
Decreasing forest cover in recent years and the search for food forces wild elephants to leave the reserve forests in winter each year and attack standing crops. When this happens, the pachyderms are sometimes hit by trains, trapped in tunnels in construction sites or electrocuted by low-voltage power lines. Sometimes, villagers poison or use electricity to kill elephants to save their crops.
In the last 10 years, the elephant conflict has claimed the lives of 800 people and around 250 pachyderms, according to official data. According to Union government figures, 186 elephants were killed in Indian train collisions between 2009-10 and 2020-21. With 62 of these deaths, Assam was the highest, followed by West Bengal (57) and Odisha (27).
According to the 2017 census, Assam at 5,719 has the second highest population of wild elephants after Karnataka (6,049). This year, eight elephant deaths have occurred in Assam due to being hit by a train—four of them in a month between September and October.
In recent years, measures such as the constitution of anti-devaluation groups, the construction of solar-powered electric fences to prevent pachyderms from moving into human settlements and intensive monitoring of elephant movements have been undertaken to reduce human-elephant conflict, according to the forest department. But the accidents continued.
“Infrastructure lines such as railways often pass through wildlife habitats, resulting in fragmentation, barriers to wildlife movement and accidental damage. Conservation costs should be prioritized when planning development projects,” Guwahati-based wildlife NGO, Aaranyak, said in a statement last week.
The recent incident, in which three elephants were killed in Titabor, prompted the Assam government to hold a meeting with officials of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) on Saturday. During the discussions, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma directed the railway authorities to “deploy advanced technological solutions” to save the hoarders from falling on the train.
Level of rescue capabilities
The incident in Titabor involving the injured female elephant has highlighted the extent to which government facilities, or the lack thereof, also require manpower, funds and expertise to carry out rescue, transport and rehabilitation of wildlife. , especially large ones like elephants and rhinos. which are hit by trains, cars or stuck in building holes and mud pits.
“In our region, in addition to being hit by trains, we have several cases every year where young elephants get stuck in drains in tea gardens or are separated from herds during floods. Therefore, the government should develop its own way to deal with such situations. But now it is missing from Assam,” said veterinarian Kushal Konwar Sarma, who is known as an elephant doctor.
“Assam is a biodiversity hotspot and is home to a variety of wild animals. Due to the degradation of their habitat due to human encroachment, conflicts between wild animals in the forests and humans and the resulting accidents are a big challenge in our region,” said Sarma. “We need to be prepared to deal with this.”
The Assam government should set up a well-organized complex with a large number of vets capable of handling wild animals and adequate equipment including cranes, he said. It should be able to train people to deal with the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife and to find enough space to rehabilitate rescued animals. There should be other similar satellite units in other parts of the region, Sarma said.
At present, the state forest department has only three wildlife vets – one posted at Kaziranga National Park, another at Manas National Park and the third at the state zoo in Guwahati.
“There is almost no organized infrastructure in Assam to deal with the rescue of injured wild animals. Though we have wildlife experts, their views are not consulted at the time of rescue. It is surprising that the government does not even have big cranes to carry wild animals,” Bibhab Talukdar, director of Aaranyak. “If money is spent on buying hundreds of drones to survey forest areas, why not use some to buy such a large equipment? ?”
One center, more pressure
It is not as if there is nothing on earth to help rescue and rehabilitate wild animals. The state is home to the Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), the only center of its kind in India.
Since its establishment more than two decades ago, CWRC has rescued more than 250 wild animals, treated and released nearly 130 of them back into the wild. The center was established by the Assam forest department and the Life Trust of India (WTI), a non-profit organization engaged in wildlife conservation.
“It would be wrong to say that there is no such thing as a system at all. The CWRC has been working on dealing with different species of wild animals for 22 years now and we are now a leader in the rescue. provision and rehabilitation of wild animals, and our experience is used by forest departments in other regions. But there is always room for improvement,” said Rathin Barman, joint director of WTI and head of CWRC.
Although the work of CWRC is praised, experts say that it is only a small effort made by the NGO, and the magnitude of the problem in Assam should require direct government intervention and more funds to manage the situation well. But there are others who feel that it is not possible to have several centers like this with veterinarians and equipment because it will be a drain on resources.
“One needs to understand that the government of Assam is very much part of the CWRC, and it was established to sign a memorandum of understanding with the state. The recent incident of the injured elephant has shown the need to find cranes. big forks and other equipment of our own, and we are planning to procure them,” said MK Yadava, Director General of Forest Conservancy and Chief Wildlife Conservator, Assam.
Although there are differences on whether the resources available to save injured animals are sufficient or need to be done, wildlife experts and veterinarians agree that many people at accident sites are need to be well controlled and media, especially television channels, should play a good role when such incidents happen.
Experts are of the opinion that the injured female elephant should not have been taken out of the stream as the water kept her sedated and helped ease the pain while vets were planning ways to treat her. But constant media coverage and public demands for the elephant’s handover led to political pressure on forest officials to raise the pachyderm and take it to a wildlife sanctuary.