IIT-Delhi's sensors to check jumbo deaths
Krishnendu Mukherjee, TNN | Nov 19, 2013, 04.07 AM IST

KOLKATA: Science could save elephants where political will has failed. IIT-Delhi has designed heat-and-motion sensors that can be fitted on railway tracks to act as an early warning system on movement of animals.

The device will be field-tested for the first time on the 165-km tracks between North Bengal's Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar, where 18 elephants have been run over by trains this year alone. Last week, an express train crushed six elephants at Jaldhaka, ramming one of them through the rail bridge where the mangled carcass hung for days as train and after train passed over it. Fifty-two elephants have died in this corridor since 2004.

An official of the ministry of environment and forests confirmed receiving the proposal from IIT-Delhi. "The institute was given the go-ahead in July and there were plans to field-test the early-warning device in Uttarakhand's Rajaji first. But keeping in mind the rising jumbo deaths on North Bengal's killer tracks, we might run the pilot test in the Dooars forests," the official told TOI.

The early warning system is being developed under the leadership of professor Subrat Kar of IIT-Delhi. It consists of a series of heat and motion sensing devices that can be placed at different points of the railway tracks. These can detect body heat or the movement of animals that come too close to the tracks and the information will be relayed from one device to another in microseconds so that the authorities can take evasive action to stop animal deaths.

"More than 100 such devices, with heat and body sensors and cameras, can be installed on a 4-km stretch of the tracks. As soon as it detects the presence of an animal, it records the message and sends through the network of devices. The information is transferred to the officials at the nearest station or signal post in real time," said Wildlife Trust of India's (WTI) Sandeep Tiwari, who has held discussions with the IIT-Delhi team on using the device at Rajaji National Park.

Anil Kumar Singh, head of WTI's conflict mitigation department, believes the device needs to be tested urgently, considering the rise in elephant deaths in this corridor. He, however, cautions that it is not foolproof. "The device can't be installed on the entire stretch. So, the risk persists. The ideal move should be to try and discourage elephants from coming on the tracks," he suggested.

Most such accidents take place near curvatures, where visibility is poor, he pointed out. "If some vegetation can be removed, it will improve visibility and also discourage elephants from moving into the area. The possibility of fencing both sides of tracks can also be explored," he said, adding that the Indian government can take tips from the road animal detection (RAD) system used in countries like US and Switzerland to check animal deaths on the roads.

Ministry officials are meeting their railway counterparts in Delhi on Tuesday to discuss ways to prevent elephant deaths. "Installing this device will take some time. Till then we will push the railways officials to restrict the speed limit to 25kmph through such corridors," an official said.