Food chucked from trains turns deathtrap for precious wildlife

Baishali Adak, India Today, February 4 2018

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Wild animals are struck by trains after they wander close to eat food discarded by passengers

Next time you travel by Indian Railways and decide to throw a banana peel or leftover rice and vegetables out of the train window after having your fill, be careful! Your act might just lead to wild animals like elephants, leopards and hyenas being mowed down by the next speeding train.

Conservationists looking into the issue of animals being killed by train hits in forest areas – particularly after six tuskers, including a pregnant female, were run over by a train in Assam in December last year – have identified ‘discarded food’ as one of the main reasons for wildlife being fatally attracted to railway tracks.

As many as 72 of the documented 88 elephant corridors in the country have national highways or other major roads passing through them – and seven have railway lines. More than 200 elephants have been killed in the country since 1987 by trains passing through their forest habitats.
The murderous railway lines include the Siliguri-Alipurduar line in north Bengal, Guwahati-Lumding line in Assam and Meghalaya, Haridwar-Dehradun line in Uttarakhand, and Coimbatore-Thrissur line in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Further, 86-km railway line across India has been identified by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) posing a serious threat to the big cats, crisscrossing through areas that connect two or more national parks bearing large feline populations. Madhya Pradesh has seen the maximum tiger deaths on tracks till date. Joydip Kundu of NGO SHER (Society for Heritage and Ecological Researches), which works in south Bengal, said, “Food dropped by passengers and staff on railway tracks is only one of the reasons behind wild animals venturing to those areas. There are also other reasons such as migration and water canals being present on the other side. But the scavenging angle is important too.”

“Animals are not just attracted by volumes of food discarded but by smells such as those of orange peels. Anyway, their habitats are disturbed and fragmented, and food resources very limited. They have to survive on what they get. Then, animals like sambar, cheetal and wild boar come to feed on these remnants, and when they are hit by a train, carnivores like tigers and leopards arrive and are killed too,” he said.

Debi Goenka, of Mumbai-based NGO CAT (Conservation Action Trust), said wild animals try to quickly adapt to their changing environments.

“We have seen this with monkeys too. When truck drivers started feeding them on roads and highways, and devotees at temples, the simians began gathering there in large numbers. It was no longer voluntary but almost extortion, creating its own set of problems. We have seen many monkeys killed by trucks on highways.”

“Similarly, the wild animals come near tracks knowing there will be something to eat,” he explained. Both Kundu and Goenka, among 14 conservationists, have written to railway minister Piyush Goyal to implement several safeguards to prevent train hits and save wildlife.

“We need to enforce measures like identify sensitive zones close to railway tracks, organise awareness workshops to sensitise railway staff and guards, level steep mounds along rail lines which hinder escape attempts of elephants and clear visibility hindering grasses along sharp bends,” said Kundu, “But stopping food from being dropped on tracks is also important.”

“This fits into PM Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan too. Why should tracks be left filthy when railway stations are being cleaned, and why should animals anyway be made to eat human food leftovers?” asked Goenka

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