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Plans, expert solutions, suggestions gather dust... but Metal monsters continue to slaughter wild elephants


There are much deliberations at ‘high places’ by many ‘experts’ to find a solution to the carnage that is taking place on the rail tracks, while wild elephants succumb to gruesome deaths at an alarmingly rapid rate. In typical Sri Lankan style there are committees appointed to study and report on the issues, (when the facts are too well known) and then when the report is submitted it will gather dust on some shelf somewhere.   

When there is a serious issue at hand, those of us who have been in the upper levels of private sector management do well know, that wide consensus-based decision-making is not the best idea under the circumstances. The need of the hour is to take swift decisions, the best decisions under the circumstances, and to immediately mitigate the crisis. It may not be the best solution, but to stem the rot, something needs to be done fast and effectively, and this calls for swift decisive actions, without wasting time on prolonged discussions.   

In the same manner what is needed in this case also is to take stock of the present situation, and come up with a simple, effective and readily implementable solution fast.   
So let’s take stock of the current situation:   

"The best decisions under the circumstances, is to immediately mitigate the crisis. It may not be the best solution, but to stem the rot, something needs to be done fast and effectively, and this calls for swift decisive actions, without wasting time on prolonged discussions"


The deaths are occurring on certain stretches of the railway tracks predominantly. These areas are readily known to the scientific community doing research on elephants. (e.g Palaugaswewe, Welikande areas)   

  • These areas cover stretches of several km of the track at specific places   
  • The deaths occur predominantly at night   
  • Having the engine drivers slow down when close to these areas is not a realistic option. It just does not happen. (this solution has been tried for several years, with sign boards warning drivers to slow down. But due to indiscipline and negligence, and the usual Sri Lankan style of lack of application and follow up and inability to implement a decision, it ended as an utter failure).   
  • Similarly installing high-tech solutions (such as thermal imaging) is of no use because the drivers do not generally heed the warnings.   
  • Deploying a wildlife warden to travel in the locomotive also has its downside, as it is not clear whether the warden would have the authority over the engine driver to enforce a slow drive.   

Given these constraints, the only logical short-term solution has to be an early warning system to frighten off the elephants, triggered automatically by the approaching train. This would take away all the unreliable human invention variables that form the equation.   

  • Strobe lights are considered the best way to frighten the beasts
  • HEC is the result elephants losing their habitat and coming into contact with humans more than before
  • Elephant deaths occur predominantly at night  
  • Elephants hear low frequencies better than high frequencies

So, with this in mind, I greased the rusty cog wheels of my early engineering training and came up with a simple, effective, relatively cheap idea that may be worth considering. (My in-plant training at the signals division of the railways many moons ago, did help)! 

The early warning system is a wired electrical alarm triggered by the loco itself. It sounds an audible and visual (strobe lights) alarm some 1.5-2.0 km ahead of the train, to frighten off elephants in the vicinity of the tracks.The triggering device could be a simple proximity switch by the side of the track, or a pressure switch embedded in the track (or other similar device).   

The wiring circuit could be run along the track to the point ahead where the alarm is installed. The alarm itself could be a low frequency powerful horn (elephants hear low frequencies better than high frequencies) and a set of multiple strobe lights mounted on a mast.   

The electrical power required for the entire system for 2 strobes (500 Watt/sec) and one powerful alarm, will require about a total of 1.5 to 2.0 kw of power (according to my rusty engineering knowledge). In some areas there is grid electrical power available. If off grid, a solar panel array coupled with a battery bank could also be used. This has to be sized so that there would be sufficient power stored for the system for one whole night or more (allowing for overcast days where charging is slower during the day).   
My basic calculations indicate that each unit would cost in the range of Rs.1.5 m and several such units have to be installed along the length of the track. As the train passes, it would trigger different track circuits along the stretches that are known elephant crossing areas. The system is easy to install, not hi-tech, and relatively less expensive.   

"The early warning system is a wired electrical alarm triggered by the loco itself. It sounds an audible and visual (strobe lights) alarm some 1.5-2.0 km ahead of the train, to frighten off elephants in the vicinity of the tracks"

I am not for one moment suggesting that this is a fool proof method that will work. A few pilot systems have to be installed and tested out. In fact some of the elephant experts whom I talked to say that over time, the elephants (that are very intelligent animals) would get used to the alarm and would not move away.   
In the absence of any quick ‘do able’ solutions, maybe something like this needs to be tried…while the longer term, more permanent solutions are debated and implemented. We owe it to ourselves to do something fast. At least to try and do something.   

Of course the root cause is a much larger and complex issue. The Human-Elephant Conflict which is the result of elephants losing their habitat and coming into contact with humans more than before. A few weeks earlier while on a drive to the east coast I saw seven elephants at the height of mid-day, by the road side in the  Habarana area, some soliciting food from passers-by. A decade ago one would have seen elephants on the road only late in the night.With dwindling food sources and habitat, the elephants are now venturing out into ‘human territories’.   

The solutions to the Human-Elephant Conflict are very complex, and needs a holistic national effort to mitigate. Alas that is but a pipe dream.   
As Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda so aptly says until “We are the intruders and we deserve to honour both human rights and elephant rights. As a tourist attraction, they may have already paid for their keep, and it is time for us to reciprocate”. He goes on to say that we have to put the elephant first, and that we should not call it the Human-Elephant Conflict, but on the contrary call it the Elephant-Human Conflict! Until there is such a paradigm shift in our thinking nothing can be done.   

"Up to October 15 this year, some 225 elephants have died. This translates into about 5 deaths per week!  And that’s only the number that is recorded. What about the elephants that die inside jungles which are not accounted for?"

Today elephants are dying at an alarming rate (not only due to train accidents). It is reported that up to October 15 this year, some 225 elephants have died. This translates into about 5 deaths perweek!  And that’s only the number that is recorded. What about the elephants that die inside jungles and are not accounted for?   
Can we afford to sit back and watch Sri Lanka’s bountiful nature be ravaged and decimated before our eyes?  


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