India has a significant number of elephants in the wild, and their persistence into the 21st century represents a conservation feat for a country with a massive human population and rising demand for natural resources. Yet, room for the much-loved animal is shrinking as pressures on its habitat and movement corridors mount, and governments pay mere lip service to nature protection. Expansion of rail and road links through elephant territory, often ignoring scientific concerns for the needs of the species, has emerged as a major source of conflict. The Elephant Task Force constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests reported in 2010 that not less than 150 elephants had been killed in train hits since 1987, a distressingly high toll for a long-lived species. It is welcome, therefore, that the Supreme Court has delivered a rebuke to the Centre and stepped in to demand answers. The Environment Ministry, and elephant-range States such as Odisha, Assam, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, must tell the country what they have done to prevent the death of elephants in train accidents. A protocol for safety has already been demonstrated in the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, involving remedial measures such as educating train drivers, putting up caution signs along railway tracks, night patrolling to alert drivers and persuading the public not to dispose of garbage in forest areas.
Research data show that steep embankments act as a barrier, while vegetation along sharp turnings of railway lines and hazardously located water bodies attract elephants, contributing to accidents. All these factors were successfully addressed in the Rajaji National Park and elephant deaths prevented. Sadly, conservation is not a sufficiently high priority for some States that have neither replicated this model nor attempted to improve on it. On the contrary, protection of natural habitat for elephants and other charismatic species is often posed as antithetical to development. This ill-informed view disregards the fact that a mere 4 per cent of the land is protected by law today, and elephant presence has shrunk to 3.5 per cent of its recorded historical range. Expansion of railways and roads may be inevitable, but it requires to be done carefully, and remedial measures need to be taken based on scientific insights. To make conservation meaningful, the movement corridors for the species should be excluded from any industrial or infrastructural plans, and mistakes already committed reversed without hesitation. The largest wild population of the Asian elephant is found in India — an estimated 28,000 — thanks to far-sighted forest protection laws. That creditable record must continue.