Elephants crossing railroad tracks were struck and killed in a passenger train collision traveling 50 mph through Chapramari forest in West Bengal state late Wednesday. The collision killed seven elephants (including two calves), and severely injured 10, but because of the severe carnage, it took some time to determine just how many elephants were killed. Pieces of elephant parts were strewn about, and one elephant hung from a railroad track. It was a horrific scene. Railway service was on hold for 12 hours.
Miles of train tracks running throughout the Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal state cut through wide swaths of areas where elephants live and roam so it is a dangerous place for these beautiful creatures. These tracks run through what is called the “elephant corridor,” meaning it can be dense with elephants at certain times of the day, between 4 p.m. and 5 a.m., when the elephants are more liable to be crossing the train tracks.
The uninjured elephants in the herd, which totaled 40, returned to the death scene and stood there until they were chased away by forest guards. It was as if they were praying for their dead family members, much the way humans do when loved ones pass away. Elephants are considered sacred in India so this wanton carnage is shocking for a country that reveres the elephant. In fact, the elephant calf is the mascot of the Indian Railways, according to Animesh Basu, coordinator of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.
According to Basu, since 2004, at least 50 elephants have been killed on these railroad tracks. Thus far this year, 17 elephants have died.
For some time now, complaints have been lodged against the railway department, saying train speeds should be reduced when traveling through the elephant corridor. But Virendra Kumar Singh, Divisional Railway Manager, Alipurduar, refused to accept any blame, saying the responsibility of such incidents lies with the forest department, not the railways, but the railway department says it doesn’t have the infrastructure or manpower to prevent such collisions.
For now, what can be done to protect the elephant? One simple act that could be done now is to slow down train speeds. With elephants risking their lives just for roaming and crossing the train tracks, West Bengal state would do well to make this one change to preserve a sacred creature.
What Elephants Mean to India’s People
Elephants are considered graceful and intelligent creatures, possessing great wisdom, and are deeply loved by Indians. They are used for religious ceremonies and during temple services. Elephants are also important in mythology, with the white elephant representing the religious symbol of the Buddha, with one political party serving as its election symbol.
Despite elephants being held in high esteem in India, they are an endangered species. According to Biodiversity of India, their numbers are dismal:
“In 2003, the wild population was estimated at between 41,410 and 52,345 individuals. The population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years.”
By Juana Poareo