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Forest-rail blame game after train crushes 5 jumbos (Nov)

The Times of India , Friday, November 15, 2013
Correspondent :
JALPAIGURI/KOLKATA: A day after yet another tragedy struck on the 'tusker killer' rail corridor of north Bengal, when five elephants were mowed down by the Kavi Guru Express in the Dooars on Wednesday evening, a familiar blame game has broken out between rail and forest officials.
Of the dead elephants, one was a sub-adult male, two were adult females, one was juvenile and one sub-adult female. Five vets reached the spot on Thursday to treat the elephant, an adult female, who was severely injured in the accident.
While some conservationists think the railways should at least change its mascot — Bholu the guard elephant — as trains are now a major cause of jumbo deaths, foresters raised the pitch for a fresh battle and warned the railways to take the issue seriously.
Leading the charge was Bengal forest minister Hiten Barman, who visited the site and said the accident happened because the train was speeding in a corridor where speed is restricted.
But, are these crocodile tears? "There has been an outpouring of grief over this tragedy. But will it translate into action? The alarming frequency of such accidents indicates that we have collectively failed in our task to provide the elephants safe passage. If we are to protect elephants, we need to take hard decisions — and securing their habitat and corridors tops the list of 'must-do's'," said conservationist Prerna Bindra.
According to sources, a herd of 40-45 elephants was moving near the Jaldhaka Bridge in Hilajora forest around 5.40pm when the Kavi Guru Express that runs from Jaipur to Kamakhya came speeding down and ploughed through the herd.
Railway officials say the driver pulled the brakes but there wasn't enough distance for the train to stop. The impact was so severe that five elephants were flung in the air and one was dragged onto the bridge. All trains along the 168km route between New Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar were stopped for the carcasses to be removed.
Sumita Ghatak, DFO of Wildlife II, told TOI that removing the carcasses was proving an uphill task. "Particularly the body of the elephant left hanging from the bridge," she said.
At a meeting between the foresters and the rail officials at Chapramari, later in the day, chief wildlife warden N C Bahuguna made it clear that all trains travelling on the 168-km line between New Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar should maintain a speed limit of 25km per hour. He also asked rail officials to stop superfast trains travelling on the stretch during the night hours.
"All trains don't have stoppages at Dooars. We have asked them to shift these trains to the NJP-Falakata line that doesn't cut across any major sanctuaries. A proposal on using ultra high frequency walkie-talkies both by the forest and rail officials also came up in the meeting," said Bahuguna, adding that a joint team of forest department and railways will monitor the site soon.
Union railway minister (state) Adhir Chowdhury said railways will examine the conditions put forward by the forest department. "Diverting trains to another line might lead to congestion on that route," he said, adding that they too were worried over rising the jumbo deaths.
The East Coast Railway, meanwhile, has started fitting its locomotives with four-beam headlights that will throw light on the tracks as well as on both sides, allowing the driver to notice any movement of animals.
A group of conservationists, who has recently filed a PIL in the Calcutta high court seeking restrictions on train movements between Siliguri and Alipurduar, are weighing options to file a special petition as 'time is running out'. "The hearing is supposed to take place next week. If it doesn't happen, then we might move a special petition," said conservationist Shakti Ranjan Banerjee, honorary director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).