20 August 2009

down came the engine...

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

This is an animal that has no natural enemies. This is an animal which was the mount of ancient Indian Kings, famed for its memory and strength, it came to symbolize the God of Warriors. This is an animal that is the mascot of the world's largest railway network. This is an animal, in a twist of irony is also being killed by the very same rail network.

Since 1987, around 129 Asian elephants have been killed on railway tracks across the country. Their biggest deathtrap is a 35-km stretch (between Palakkad, Kerala and Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) across the Western Ghats forests through which 40 trains pass during the day and another 30 during the night. In the past year alone, eight elephants were killed and this has brought about violent protests by wildlife officials against any further expansions of railway tracks through the elephant corridor.

India is home to 60% of the Asian elephant population making their survival in the country critical to their survival as a species. Factors such as throwing waste food on the tracks, lack of awareness among drivers and not adhering to speed limits apart from steep embankments are causes for elephant deaths on the tracks. The Government is erecting electric fencing to keep the elephants from straying but alarm systems based on sensor or radar technology need to be put in place. Southern Railways have also brought down their speed limit in the elephant corridor in order to help drivers better with visibility.

In the face of loss of habitat and incidents of continued poaching, avoidable death of elephants and indeed any animal, must cease. The latest estimate according to Project Elephant is that the country has 27,694 wild elephants in the 2008-2009 period. Most wildlife experts refuse to believe this claim as they say that the numbers are for protected areas only.

In a number of areas the government has set up corridors for the elephants to travel from one area to another. Unfortunately people regularly encroach into these corridors taking matters into their own hands, killing elephants when they rampage through a settlement. As populations steadily rise, so too will conflicts. In India alone, elephant-human conflict results in about 300 human and 200 elephant deaths each year due to poaching, crop protection and any number of other accidents, including vehicle-elephant collisions.

About 20% of the worlds population lives in or near current existing habitat of the Asian elephant and the human population of these areas is growing at a rate of 3% per year. The Asian elephant is considered a keystone biological species. Because the habitat that they occupy are considered some of the richest biodiversity regions in Asia like the Western Ghats, its conservation and survival will automatically promote the survival of a variety of other flora and fauna. The elephant in its own right is a symbol of India - help protect it by affliating yourself to WWF or similar organizations.

Adapted from: "The Giant Killer" by M.G. Radhakrishnan and Abhijit Dasgupta, India Today, August 17, 2009.

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