Assam: A human approach to the elephants; no loss of elephants for four years at Deepor-Beel wetland

By Manoj Kumar Ojha

GUWAHATI: Deepor Beel ( lake )- wetlands of Assam, only 12 km from the capital Guwahati ; has been witnessing an elephant-friendly approach by humans since last four years.

Late night, standing next to the railway track, Lakhindra Teron flashes his high-beam torch, directing its powerful beam towards an oncoming train. The train slows down, averting tragedy.
A herd of elephants crosses the tracks unscathed, and Teron walks back home, relieved, to have his dinner.

Deepor Beel’s record of having lost no elephant to trains in nearly four years remains intact

As a haati mitra (friend of elephants) from the nearby Chakardeo village, Teron is one of the part of a massive collaborative effort involving the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) authorities, forest officials, guards and other villagers to prevent elephants from being steamrolled by the wheels of development.

But the haati mitras are not the only safety net for the elephants in the rapidly developing Deepor Beel area, where ever-lengthening highways, roads, and train tracks cut across the wetlands.

Over the past two years, different mechanisms have been introduced in the Deepor Beel landscape to safeguard elephants – signalling mechanisms, devices that emit the sound of bees, AI-based elephant intrusion detection systems (IDS), ramps, and sand humps along the banks for ease of movement are some of the measures put in place. And these efforts have paid off despite the growing network of train tracks crisscrossing the region.

The hills across Deepor Beel bordering Meghalaya have always been a gathering spot for elephants traversing fast vanishing ancient routes or haati dandis, but to reach their destination, they must navigate roads, highways, and railway tracks.

In this belt, trains are the biggest predators

According to Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) CPRO Sabyasachi De, an average of 30-40 trains ply across the Kamakhya-Azara section or the Deepor Beel corridor on a daily basis.

It’s a 5 km stretch, of which 3.5 km is part of a notified elephant corridor. The railway line and the Koinadhora-Airport road in Guwahati cut through at least five elephant corridors that connect the nearby Rani Reserve forest and the wetlands. The elevated airport road runs alongside the lake, flanked by two approach roads leading to National Highway-37.

Prior to the collaboration, between 2007 and 2013, trains claimed the lives of at least seven elephants in the Deepor Beel sector. However, from 2013 until June 2023, only one elephant was killed by a train – that was in 2019, said Jayashree Naiding, the former Divisional Forest Officer of Guwahati Wildlife Division. In Assam, at least 33 elephants have died in train accidents between January 2017 and March 2023, but none of those fatalities, barring the one in 2019, occurred in the Deepor Beel region.

“Due to the efforts of the Haati Mitras and the forest staff stationed at Deepor Beel, no untoward occurrence has been witnessed for a while now. NFR too now realises the situation, and have become cooperative in terms of saving the elephants in the area,” said Kaushik Barua, a conservationist and member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group and the State Board for Wildlife.

About a year ago, the railway authorities started constructing ramps at major elephant crossings

“These ramps facilitate swift movement of elephants across the tracks, thus preventing accidents. The NFR has deployed an AI-based sensing system that sends out alerts whenever elephant movement is detected within a certain distance from the track,” added Barua. But he cautioned that AI should not replace human intervention entirely.

There are also proposals to construct underpasses and elevated train tracks to make it easier for animals to reach water bodies.

While conservationists laud the efforts, they are worried these may not be sufficient — not when the “very existence of the Deepor Beel Ramsar site is threatened” by shrinking wetlands, lakes, rivulets, forest areas, and untreated legacy waste dumped near the beel by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation.

“Nearly all of the city’s sewage lines are directed towards the Deepor Beel wetland areas,” said Prasanta Kumar Saikia, a professor and head of Zoology and in-charge of the Ecology and Wildlife Biology department at Gauhati University. And with the increasing threat, elephant herds are venturing into villages they once avoided.

The survival of the region’s villagers, fisherfolk, and wildlife is intrinsically tied to the health of Deepor Beel and its surroundings.

‘Friends’ know the elephants
It’s this urgency and respect for elephants that drove Lakhindra Teron, Hareswor Tumung, and Bijoy Rabha from Chakardeo village to become Haati Mitras. They work closely with forest officials for a token amount. Their dedication towards protecting these herbivorous giants runs in their blood, passed down through generations.

“We were born here. We have seen elephants up close — both at the beel and in our paddy fields. We do this to protect them,” said Teron, who has been volunteering since 2013. Last year, he and three other hathi mitras were honoured for their service at an event in Guwahati, attended by Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav and Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

The haati mitras don’t track the movement of elephant herds to and from the hills, but rely on alerts from their network of informants when the animals are near the tracks. Once they receive information, they immediately notify the railway gate guard, who passes it on to the station master. Everyone remains on high alert.

“A caution order is issued by the rail authorities, and the train driver is informed of the presence of the herd on or near the tracks,” Teron explains. Meanwhile, the haati mitras rush to the scene and flash their torches to signal the train, which responds accordingly.

“Our concern is to help them cross the rail line. Sometimes, we have to skip dinner or have a midnight meal when they are here in the evening,” said Teron. But he doesn’t mind. A decade as a haati mitra has not diminished his fascination for the animals and their almost “human-like” reasoning. Some elephants can actually gauge the distance of an approaching train.

“A train passes through this sector every half an hour. But the railways has become much more alert and aware now,” says Pramod Kalita, a cattle farmer and activist from Chakardeo village. Although he is not a haati mitra, he often assists like many others in the village. Just last month, he and others successfully stopped a train from colliding with a herd of elephants.

According to the haati mitras, the rumble of trucks along highways and roads is more disturbing to the elephants. “Some trucks don’t stop even when we signal them to, and on a few occasions, they were almost about to charge through the elephants crossing the road,” said Kalita.

Trucks plying along one of the major elephant crossing area passing through Deepor Beel

To ensure the burden doesn’t solely rest on the villagers, multiple fail-safe mechanisms have been installed. At the level-crossing gate near the riverine wetland, the trackman meticulously records the time of elephants’ ascent and descent. In case of an emergency where a train and a herd are on a collision course, the trackman informs the Station Master and waves a red flag to signal the loco pilot to ‘Go Slow’.

“Just like humans, elephants also need food and water, which is why they come to the Beel. They have families to feed. The night before, they came around 11pm,” said a trackman at the gate.

Around September-October last year, NFR authorities constructed sand humps on both sides of the existing track to facilitate quick movement of elephants. The platform was raised with earthwork, making it more accessible for the elephants to cross back and forth, preventing major mishaps, according to conservationist Kaushik Barua.

‘Project Bees’ wasn’t as successful though. In 2017, the railways installed devices that emitted the sound of buzzing bees at level crossings along elephant corridors, with the hope that the sound would deter the animals. But forest guards said it didn’t take long for the elephants to realise that the devices were full of sound and fury with no sting.

“Sometimes they listen to the sound and wait to see what happens, but usually, they don’t pay much attention. They have a mind of their own,” says the trackman.

A loudspeaker emitting bee sound installed at one of the train gates in Deepor Beel | Photo: Karishma Hasnat | ThePrint
There was a close call in March when a gatekeeper at one of the watchtowers dozed after a long night shift. At the same time, a herd was approaching the tracks to return to the hills. Fortunately, nearby villagers managed to wake the gatekeeper up. It was too late to sound the alarm, said Bhogeswar Kalita, who was on a morning walk with his wife Mamoni that hour.

The Kalitas watched the train speed past the herd. One elephant was knocked down. “It tumbled down but managed to get up, cross the track, and climb onto the road. It stood there for almost half an hour before returning to the hills,” recalls Kalita, a teacher from Chakardeo village.

And when all else fails, there is always artificial intelligence to rely on.

Can AI do it all?
In an attempt to reduce human error and improve safety along elephant corridors in Assam and North Bengal, the NFR is tapping into its network of optic fibre cables (OFCs) to deploy an artificial intelligence-driven elephant intrusion detection system (IDS).

The IDS works by detecting variations in the optical signals transmitted through the OFCs when elephants move on or alongside railway tracks, causing vibrations. The NFR’s AI software can identify these changes and immediately alert control offices, station masters, gatekeepers, and loco pilots.

The AI software has been trained to identify movement signatures of all mammals, including humans. The NFR had rolled it out on a pilot basis last year along 11 elephant corridors spanning 70 km in Assam’s Lumding and Alipurduar divisions, where no elephant-related accidents have occurred. NFR is now implementing the IDS along the remaining 75 corridors, including Deepor Beel. Each installation costs around Rs 3 crore for an 80 km section.

The railway authorities hope that once the system is in place, trains will be able to operate more efficiently. Trains are required to maintain a speed of 30 kmph in elephant corridors, which can be challenging for loco pilots, especially at night when locating elephants becomes more difficult due to forest cover and natural camouflage, said De, NFR’s CPRO.

It’s something villagers have observed too. According to Bhogeswar Kalita, elephants find it easy to move when the tracks are straight. “At curved sections of the track, because of diffraction, elephants often don’t see the train headlight,” he explained.

With the installation of the IDS in the Deepor Beel corridor, the NFR gradually plans to increase the speed limit in this sector.

“When the IDS is installed, we will come to know of any elephant movement beforehand. Humans may sometimes miss herd movement, but this system won’t fail,” De remarked.

Barua is not quite convinced about the infallibility of the software. AI should not signal the end of human intervention, not here in the Deepor Beel where human ties to the land and its animals are strong.

“Not having adequate people on the ground to monitor elephant movement can prove disastrous. Technology has its limitations,” he warned.

In January, the state cabinet approved the construction of road underpasses in notified corridors leading to Deepor Beel. This is part of the wildlife protection measures proposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) monitoring committee in 2018.

Dr Bilal Habib, a conservation biologist and scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which is part of the committee, states that the underpasses will “allow uninterrupted movement of elephants between forests and the surrounding Deepor Beel.”

While everyone — from villagers to haati mitras and railway officials are working together, disagreements and protests are as much a part of the process. Currently, stakeholders are opposing NFR’s plans for electrification of the existing track through Deepor Beel and the proposed construction of a second parallel track.

Even as NFR assures that electrification will not pose a threat to elephants, Dr Habib warns that it may lead to an increased probability of elephant deaths.

“Electrification is going to reduce the noise of the engine, thereby allowing animals to detect trains only from a short distance. This is going to increase chances of encounters between trains and elephants,” he said.

Now, a compromise has been reached. Based on WII’s suggestions, NFR will construct rail viaducts on the existing track to ensure the free passage of elephants. Both the second track and the existing track will be elevated through a viaduct. Over time, NFR plans to have an “electrified double line” over a viaduct for both the existing track and the parallel track.

In compliance with an August 2019 NGT order, NFR has also agreed not to construct any additional linear railway infrastructure at ground level in Deepor Beel. The NGT order directed the Assam government to declare Deepor Beel an eco-sensitive zone to address conservation threats to the water body and to end the “land utilisation character for a rail track alignment through three elephant corridors – Segunbari, Mikirpara and Matia”.

A site of ‘unsafe’ attraction
Every evening, Deepor Beel attracts young couples from Guwahati and other areas, as well as photo enthusiasts waiting for the perfect sunset. Tourist groups play music, people find spots to relax, and ice cream vendors cycle by as lovers hold hands. Along the road, fisherfolk lay out baskets of freshwater fish, priced at hundred rupees per basket or half a kilo.

Nobody wants to leave, which increases the responsibility of forest guards — to keep a watch on the crowd and also look out for elephants.

“It’s really difficult to send them off after 5pm when we need to close the gates. Youngsters don’t listen to us. I am suffering from many ailments — diabetes, thyroid and my leg surgery is due. I have five years to retire, but I have to show up to feed my family. The government should deploy young and energetic men in this sector,” said 55-year-old forest guard, Dipuram Das.

Deepor Beel is the only wetland in Assam set to be designated as a site of importance under the Ramsar Convention

Covering an area of about 900 ha, it is home to 150 species of birds in and around the sanctuary including nine threatened species. The ecosystem harbours many species of migratory birds in winter besides resident birds. In January 1991, 688 birds were counted under the Asian Waterfowl census.

The hills and forests surrounding the wetland serve as habitat for different animal species including vulnerable and endangered vertebrate such as leopard, Hoolock Gibbon and Chinese Pangolin

The wetland primarily receives water from streams and rivulets flowing from the south. It comprises three water bodies—Barbeel, Kharbari, and Chanabeel—with the Mora Bharalu, Bahini, and Basistha streams flowing nearby.

Despite its ecological importance, the eco-sensitive zone demarcation for Deepor Beel is yet to be done – in compliance with a 2019 NGT order directing the Assam government to do so. Currently, only a core area of 4.1 sq km has been designated as the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary.

A meeting of the empowered committee under the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change took place on 21 June to consider the approval of the eco-sensitive zone. In a court hearing on 15 June regarding a petition filed by Pramod Kalita and others, Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court, Suman Shyam, deferred the matter for the issuance of eco-sensitive zone notification by four weeks.

Today, the Deepor Beel region is fighting a war on multiple fronts—unregulated tourism, shrinking water bodies, pollution, and haphazard and unplanned urbanisation. However, the worst scar on the land comes from the untreated detritus from Guwahati, which was dumped for 15 years into a 31.10 hectares landfill allocated by the Assam government right next to the wetland in 2006.

Although it was shifted in 2021, the legacy waste continues to degrade this eco-sensitive area, with illegal dumping still occurring at the Boragaon dumping site near Deepor Beel, according to villagers.

“Around 20 years ago, the Boragaon dumping ground used to be a place where elephants would give birth and stay for a month or two. Now, even the adjoining areas and greenery have been sacrificed for construction purposes,” laments Pramod Kalita. Aquatic plants like Makhana (Euryale ferox) that elephants love to consume have almost vanished. Herds have started avoiding the “contaminated water,” whenever possible.

The early warning signs of possible human-elephant conflict are already there. The elephants have started trudging through the ‘Basti’ area, ransacking paddies and plantations, with no fear of humans. Significantly, they have started using new routes for movement, unfamiliar to villagers.

Bhogeswar Kalita blames new constructions and walled properties. Many villagers have sold their excess lands to private developers who are constructing houses and warehouses near the Ramsar site. “The elephants take whichever route they find, even treading places they never knew of before. We cannot tell which passage they will use tonight,” said Bhogeswar Kalita.

Local residents want development, but not at the expense of upsetting the wetland ecosystem. Many insist that the roads, rail tracks, and proximity to the highway have done little to benefit them.

“In fact, we are at a loss. The road from Koinadhora to Kamakhaya has not been of much help as we don’t have public transport here,” said Pramod.

Over the past five years, elephants have become more daring in raiding crops.

Haren Chandra Das, a businessman from Maajpara village, said that elephant visits used to be seasonal, but now they appear whenever they please.

Even attempts to scare them away with crackers no longer drive them back to the hills. “They have developed an attitude, as if saying “Kiman Khedibi?” (How long can you chase us?).”

The post Assam: A human approach to the elephants; no loss of elephants for four years at Deepor-Beel wetland appeared first on OUR INDIA.

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