The ghastly plight of elephants dying at the hands of poachers desperate to smuggle ivory to countries such as China and Vietnam has finally persuaded some governments around the world to take action.
Now we are learning of another tragic threat to the lives of these animals: high-speed trains.
A passenger train was traveling at 50 mph through the Chapramari forest in eastern India on November 13 when it struck a herd of 40 elephants crossing the tracks at dusk.
Seven elephants died instantly, while ten others were seriously injured.
According to Hiten Burman, forestry minister in Western Bengal, this was the worst such crash in recent history. However, at least 50 elephants have been killed by trains since 2004 in Western Bengal state.
As The Guardian reports:
“The herd scattered, but returned to the railway tracks and stood there for quite some time before they were driven away by forest guards and railroad workers who rushed to the spot after the accident,” he said.
Burman said railway authorities have ignored requests from his department to have trains reduce their speeds inside the elephant corridor in Jalpaiguri district, about 415 miles from Kolkata, the state capital.
“It is an irony that elephants are being killed by speeding trains in north Bengal on regular intervals, even though it has been declared as the heritage animal in India and an elephant calf is the mascot of Indian Railways,” said Animesh Basu, a wildlife activist and co-ordinator of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.
Elephants are found in Asia and Africa. On both continents they are classified as endangered according to the Red List put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are between 25,600 and 32,750 individual Asian elephants left in the wild, with the biggest population in India. The most recently identified subspecies, the Borneo ‘pygmy elephant,’ has been estimated to number 1,500 or fewer.
The international trade in ivory has been essentially banned since 1989 after the population of African elephants dropped from millions in the mid-20th century to just 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.
While this seemed to be working for a while, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reports that more than 25,000 elephants were poached in 2012.
In fact, the situation is so dire that, according to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, elephants could be extinct within 12 years.
One Elephant Dies Every 15 Minutes
Obviously speeding trains are contributing to this, but the trust also estimates that poachers are killing one elephant every 15 minutes around the world.
Growing prosperity in China has been blamed for fueling increased demand for ivory, sought after because it is a traditional symbol of wealth and status.
On November 13, in response to this growing problem, U.S. authorities crushed 6 tons of seized ivory, each piece cut from dead elephants.
The Denver Post reports:
Tusks and carved objects seized from airports and border crossings over the past two decades were loaded into a blue rock-grinder near a warehouse at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where the ivory was kept, and pulverized it all into fine chips.
This first U.S. government destruction of illegal ivory was orchestrated as part of a broader campaign including increased funding to fight poaching and crackdowns on consumers. President Obama in July launched a task force. Diplomats have engaged governments in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
On November 14, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the dismantling of the Xaysavang Network, a Laos-based criminal operation that “facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos and other species for products such as ivory.”
According to the State Department, the group has affiliates in South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China, and profits from illegal activities by this group and others that fund activities such as narcotics, arms and human trafficking.
Watch Towers to Protect Indian Elephants
As for those elephants in India, the government has announced that it plans to take preventive measures against elephant-train collisions. Their proposal is to set up watch towers along a 100-mile stretch of railway known as the “elephant corridor.” These towers will monitor the movements of elephants and regulate the speed of trains accordingly.
While it’s encouraging to know that officials in India are taking action to protect their elephants, we hope they implement stricter safety measures and that they act quickly. You can help put pressure on the Indian government to do more to ensure that elephants are no longer killed by high-speed trains by signing the Care2 petition.
Now, let’s hope that the U.S. efforts will encourage other nations around the world to take similar action against the illegal smuggling of ivory.
Photo Credit: thinkstock