A railway system which spans over a 100 years still doesn’t have the capacity to adopt new technologies to track and save elephants
A cartoon of an elephant, stranded between the gates of the Sri Lanka Railways and the Wildlife Conservation Department done by our own staff cartoonist Gihan De Chickera very aptly describes the prevailing jumbo crisis. Within a period of three weeks, eight elephants succumbed to their injuries as a result of train collisions. Following up from the previous article titled ‘Rumble of death on the railway track’ the authorities seem to have turned a blind eye to the issue in terms of producing a solution. As mentioned in the previous article, a railway system which spans over a 100 years still doesn’t have the capacity to adopt new technologies to track and save elephants. While authorities stay put, more incidents are likely to occur resulting in the further declination of the elephant population.
Given the present scenario, the Daily Mirror spoke to those responsible regarding what could be done while also shedding light on a few suggestions pointed out by experts to curb this issue in the long-run.
50 out of 80 locations critical
Speaking to the Daily Mirror Chandana Sooriyabandara, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Department said that 80 locations have been identified so far. “Out of them, 50% have been identified as critical including Habarana, Manampitiya and Welikanda. The Railway officers have inspected the place and certain structural changes need to be done,” said Sooriyabandara.
But we will have to have another round of discussions
Not a usual elephant corridor
According to Dilantha Fernando, General Manager of Sri Lanka Railways said that the place where the recent incident took place is not a usual elephant corridor. “The elephant corridor is located one and a half kilometres towards Colombo. We haven’t installed any boards since it is not a usual elephant corridor. There is an elephant fence on one side and a village on the other.
“Advanced warning system needed”
Subject minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka said that an advanced warning system needs to be installed. “But we will have to have another round of discussions. It may not happen immediately. Right now we don’t have a system to give any warning, but we are working on it,”said Fonseka.
In his comments regarding this issue, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR), who has conducted extensive research on wild elephants in Sri Lanka, said that an initially study has to be done regarding these locations. “Unfortunately nobody is interested. Thermal sensors could be part of the solution, but installing them without knowing the exact locations will create bigger damage. It takes some effort and money. But if done that way we can use the data to install these thermal sensors.”said Fernando.
When inquired about elephant corridors, Dr. Fernando explained that elephants may use certain areas to travel on. “We need to collar elephants and find these areas. Elephants do use particular routes to travel, but they don’t use them over long distances. There are many locations such as Habarana which go through the Gal Oya reserve. Then again there’s Galgamuwa and other locations frequented by elephants. On the other hand, just because these areas are earmarked we can’t expect these accidents not to happen,”he said.
According to Dr. Fernando, putting barriers along tracks preventing elephants coming onto the track, without assessing movement patterns based on tracking data, is likely to cause the death of many more elephants. This will be due to starvation caused by loss of range, than those that die colliding with trains.
A few suggestions by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando may help identify landscape alterations which could be done to decrease incidents :
- Conduct a study of the train accidents during the past 10 years or so and see if there are particular patterns including:
- A map of locations - May help identify locations where trains need to go slow
- Dates of accidents - Whether there is any seasonality - identify periods when trains may have to go slow
- Times of accidents - Identify the time of day when trains should go slow
- Whether train was a regular train/off time - More vigilance on off-time trains?
- Assess accident points on the ground to see whether there are any landscape features that cause/increase such accidents
- Slope of railway line embankment
- Surrounding vegetation
- Area clear of vegetation on either side of track
- Lay of the track - bend/straight
- Collar elephants in areas where train accidents occur and identify crossing areas/points
- Evaluate if the areas/points can be decreased by electric fencing to minimise locations where trains have to go slow
- Evaluate possibility of under/over passes for elephants at crossing points and funnelling them to such with electric fencing
- Evaluate reaction of elephants to passage of trains
- Evaluate reaction of elephants to any mitigation methods
Thermal sensors could be part of the solution, but installing them without knowing the exact locations will create bigger damage
Another possible solution includes putting up beehives, which is an eco-friendly and a sustainable method of keeping elephants away. This method was implemented after researchers observed how elephants keep away from bees.
They are not only irritated by the buzzing sound, but a group of bees could also sting on an elephant’s skin rather nastily. This method is already implemented in Africa and could be a potential income-generator for locals.
Three jumbos succumbed to their injuries when they were hit the Meenagaya Night Mail train in Namalgama, Welikanda last Saturday. The postmortem report revealed that out of the three, two were females and one was a male. Among the two female elephants, one was a pregnant female. As in the previous incident, the foetus was thrown out due to the impact of the collision.