The sad nature of the recent elephant crisis has caught an unparalleled amount of attention from many. The railway authorities have reported a spiralling number of elephant deaths caused due to elephants being hit by moving trains – more so in the recent past.
“There were around 16 reported elephant deaths in 2018 alone,” claimed Railway Locomotive Union Secretary Indika Dodangoda.
Whilst working around the aspects of train speeds and lighting, the Department of Railways, with the help of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, introduced, last month, an SMS hotline (0704 445 454) to send alerts on locations of elephant herds on railway lines countrywide. This is no ordinary hotline; it operates on a 24-hour basis and assists the detection of elephants hovering in the vicinity of railway tracks. Following the sighting, a message is sent, and this message will be recorded and forwarded to a registered group at the Railway Department.
Pubudu Weerarathna, an Environment Consultant, remains of the view that some hope could be attributed to the success of this system, given that it’s been well coordinated. He said: “If the relevant individuals are lined up well, it will invariably direct engine drivers to slow down because the main issue here is the speed.”
Whilst this in itself is a laudable first step to counteract the issue, questions encircling its effectiveness remain. Dodangoda included that the hotline system, at the moment, is only devised to function in the event an individual witnesses elephants nearing railway tracks, and takes the initiative to inform the relevant authorities.
The speed at which trains are operated is assumed to be one of the root causes of this matter. Whilst 20 kmph is the ideal speed, most trains operate at 80-100 kmph. According to environmental activist Jayantha Wijesinghe of the Rainforest Protectors Sri Lanka: “When engine drivers see a herd of elephants crossing the rail tracks, they speed up instead of slowing down” as then, chances of trains derailing remain slim. However, such tragedies could be avoided if speeds are maintained at 20kmph.
Jayantha further added that a lack of vigilance and consciousness on the part of engine drivers act as a contributing factor as well. A majority of them fall asleep at night and this prevents engine drivers from doing the needful when necessary. Blinking lights is all it may take to get these herds to move, shared Jayantha.
Most trains are equipped with dim lighting, and affixing brighter lights will enable them to see through longer distances. According to Jayantha, there was a plan where a wildlife officer was to accompany engine drivers when they operated through these routes, although prospects of this happening in reality remain questionable.
Jayantha feels that despite the assertion that the current solutions proposed by the authorities may seem favourable to an extent, it is doubtful whether they’re sufficiently effective due to the availability of improved alternatives.
Other viable options?
Sensors are one excellent alternative that would help detect movement of elephants from afar.
“I believe trains should be equipped with their own infrared detectors as then trains can detect elephant movement from afar and slow down when necessary,” Jayantha stated. Other parts of the world, such as India, have dealt with similar issues and have also supported these solutions. “The impact it might have on Sri Lanka remains unknown, but there’s no harm in trying.”
Jayantha states that whilst the initiative put forward by the Department of Railways is indeed noteworthy, combining it with other solutions such the attachment of sensors is likely to have an even better outcome.
“Sensors function in various ways – detection through movement and sound are the most common ones. This, paired with the sending of a text, would act as a more efficient method in preventing elephant related accidents.”
Underground and overground passes
Jayantha stated that in countries such as Kenya, the existence of underground passes prevent elephants from moving to and surrounding railway tracks and they would go unharmed.
Although this solution promises long-term benefits, Weerarathna asserted: “Despite the benefits, it is important to consider costs associated with it as it’s a large-scale project, and could be constructed in the future installation of railway lines.”
Use of collars on elephants
The most commonly used collars are GPS (Global Positioning System) collars, and they are only capable of detecting animal movement. Weerarathna asserted that “information is only received once every hour or sometimes once every six hours. So they lack real time data.”
Jayantha insists on the use of GSM (global system for mobile communication) collars on elephants as opposed to GPS, for it would act as an efficient mechanism in the prevention of elephant accidents. GSM collars are proved to render real time data. “Not only would it prevent elephant accidents, but it would also ensure that the safety and migration patterns of elephants would be kept in place.”
Weerarathna however noticed that collaring might not be practical as it might not be possible to collar all animals.
By Chenelle Fernando