January 5: Four elephants were run over by a speeding train within Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.
January 30: One more elephant died near Buxa after being hit by a train.
It took five elephant deaths for the forest ministry to wake up. A three-member standing committee team of National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) is likely to visit Mahananda on February 5 and 6 to inspect the site where the Northern Frontier Railways has proposed to develop a broad gauge line, the second in Mahananda, from Sevoke to Sikkim's Rongpo.
If sources are to be believed, the representatives of railways have already put pressure on the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) at the NBWL standing committee meet on December 12, last year, for a fast project clearance.
Confirming the move, a member of the team, M K Ranjitsinh, said that a decision would be taken only after they submit the site inspection report to the standing committee. Other members, who will visit the site, are Prerna Bindra and MD Madhusudan.
According to a railways official, the track passes through the steep hills and forests of Darjeeling and East Sikkim for a short length. However, the members of Society for Preservation and Awareness of Wildlife and Nature (SPAWN), Jalpaiguri, said the proposed track will pass through Gola, Chawa, Andheri and Ruyem blocks of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary with tunnels cutting through the low hills forests within the sanctuary, which is an important resting place for Asiatic elephants apart from being home to endangered species like leopard, Asiatic black bear, wild dog and a near-isolated tiger. According to Biswapriya Rahut, secretary of SPAWN, the area holds a steady population of 50 elephants throughout the year and 150 during the migratory season.
In a recent letter to the NBWL, Rahut had suggested exploring the possibilities of constructing the line along the left bank of the river Teesta (the opposite bank) which will see less damage of natural wealth and wildlife.
Agreeing with Ranjitsinh, NBWL member Prerna Bindra said Mahananda is an important protected area with endangered and even endemic flora and fauna, and is also part of the Gorumara-Jaldapara-Buxa landscape, which then has contiguity with forests in Bhutan. State wildlife advisory board member Biswajit Roy Chowdhury said the railways should consider an alternate route.
Junior railway minister Adhir Chowdhury said the proposed line is key to the economic development of the North-East. "Due to political tensions with Bangladesh, we are left with no scope to explore alternate routes via that country for North-East rail links. But environmental impact will be assessed before going ahead with this project," he said.
SPAWN members said the area also houses the rare snow orchid, which is endemic to this particular place, together with a host of important and threatened floral and faunal species. Construction of the track might bring about the local extinction of many such species, they fear.Ever since the broad gauge track was laid from New Jalpaiguri to Sevok, cutting across Mahananda, over 40 elephants were run over in the area between 2004 and 2012, including 10 calves. Most of the casualties occurred in Madarihat, Chapramari and Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) areas.
* 40 elephants were run over by trains in areas inside Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary between 2004 and 2012, including 10 calves
* Apart from elephants, 6 bisons and one leopard were run over in this route between 2004 and 2012
* Majority of the casualties was reported from Madarihat, Buxa and Chapramari areas
* The proposed line will cut through Gola, Chawa, Andheri and Ruyem blocks of Mahananda, which are traditional resting places for elephants
* The new line from Sevok to Rongpo will pass through the steep hills and reserve forest of Darjeeling and East Sikkim
* It will pass along the western bank of river Teesta and then pass through the NH-31A on right
* There will be 14 tunnels along the route with a total length of almost 32 kilometres which is about 72% of the entire route.