A passenger train in the West Bengal region of India mowed down a herd of elephants, killing five adult and two baby pachyderm, in an all-too-common collision between the animals and machines. That number could rise as a total of ten elephants were injured in the crash, and some are still being treated.
As if the story wasn't sad enough for elephant lovers, the ones who weren't hurt in the crash actually came back for their friends. "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," Hiten Burman, forestry minister in West Bengal, told The Associated Press.
While the idea of a passenger trains smashing into elephants isn't fathomable in many parts of the world, this scene has actually become quite common in India, even though the animal has a special protected status within the country. This year's death toll stands at 18, the Times of India reported. "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," Animesh Basu, a wildlife activist and coordinator of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, told the AP.
The "heritage animal" classification Basu is talking about is a special status the country bestowed on the great beasts in 2010, a status which is supposed to grant them protection and make their lives a conservation priority. In that same year, there were at least three terrible train accidents where elephants died. In January of 2010, a freight train mowed down four. That March, a speeding train killed one and injure another, and in September, seven pachyderms saw their lives end at the hands of a train. According to the Wildlife Trust of India's report in 2008, more than 118 elephants had been killed by India's trains since 1987. The elephant picture above was just one of several struck and killed last year.
The problem is that more of India's railways and human development coincide with where elephants live and travel. Some of those railways stretch into the country's national parks and forests, resulting in dozens of elephant deaths in recent years, The Guardian reported. Killing elephants, is obviously the most immediate consequence, but the development into elephant habitats also restricts the space where they can live, stifling population in the long term.
In south Asia, it is the quest for land by an ever increasing human population that causes many illegal encroachments in elephant habitat, thus causing habitat loss and fragmentation. In some cases, it is development activities, such as roads, railway tracks, in crucial corridor areas that fragment the habitat.
India's estimated wild elephant population is about 26,000.