In some parts of India, especially in the northeast, it is quite common for elephants to pass through populated regions or to step across railway tracks — or even four-lane highways — in search of food. Many areas have been designated elephant corridors, where drivers are supposed to proceed with caution.
In the case over the weekend, the train operator was traveling above the speed limit of 30 kilometers, or about 20 miles, an hour, forestry officials said. Earlier in the day, the Forestry Department had sent several urgent notifications to railway operators that a large elephant herd was moving through the Habaipur area, about 250 kilometers north of Silchar, near India’s border with Bangladesh. The area is deep green on most maps, and a well-known refuge for elephants.
This episode is the latest in an unfortunate pattern. As recently as December, a train in Assam killed five adult elephants, including one that was pregnant.
But in India’s wildlife community, the latest accident seems to have reverberated more, adding to the sadness and outrage that has been building.
“The railways need to be held accountable,’’ said Prerna Singh Bindra, a conservationist and writer. “How come we have not learned our lessons?”
About two weeks ago, Ms. Bindra and more than a dozen other wildlife advocates sent a letter to India’s railway minister pointing out this very problem.
“Our elephants are in trouble,’’ the letter began.
It then laid out several steps to help prevent train-elephant accidents, including building underpasses beneath railway lines for the animals, and telling passengers not to throw food out of the windows, as that encourages hungry animals to linger along the tracks.
Wildlife experts say that India has the largest number of train accidents involving elephants in the world, with hundreds killed in the past 20 years. Many accidents tend to involve one or two animals, though in late 2013, five elephants were killed by a train in the Indian state of West Bengal, another area where such collisions happen frequently.
Sadly for the elephants, the number of collisions with trains seems to be rising. For example, in West Bengal, there were 27 such deaths from 1974 to 2002. But from 2004 to 2015, a much shorter period, there were 65, and there were as many as 30 killed in the last five years alone, according to Indian environmentalists.
Train accidents are just one of the many threats elephants in India face. Some of the animals have been poached for their ivory, others poisoned by farmers angry at them for eating their crops. At the same time, forests are being cleared for timber and farms, and more train tracks and highways are being built all around the country. The wide open wild spaces where elephants used to roam are fragmenting as India’s human population, now 1.3 billion, grows.
Asian elephants are considered endangered, with at most around 50,000 left. A recent study showed a dip in India’s elephant population, though scientists disagreed over whether this was because of a change in how the elephants were counted or if there were actually fewer elephants.
“We revere the elephant as a god, as Ganesha,” Ms. Bindra said, referring to one of Hinduism’s most popular deities. “Yet at the same time, we are in a situation where we have elephants dying and being chased off areas with human habitation.’’
Perhaps, then, it is a cruel paradox that the mascot of Indian Railways is an elephant.