For years, colleagues in India have expressed frustration over the number of wild elephants killed by trains. This past week, seven elephants died when they were mowed down by a speeding cargo train. The herd was on the tracks trying to help a calf who was unable to cross. In true elephant fashion, the entire herd came to the calf’s rescue, losing their lives in the process.
What makes this tragedy different, in addition to the number of elephants killed, is the response by the government. Vowing to make the necessary changes to prevent future calamity, the government is holding the railroad accountable. The train conductor responsible for the massacre has been cited, the railroad officials have been put on alert and the public has been assured that provisions will be made to protect against future loss of life.
From my observation, India is on the fast track of improved elephant welfare in situ and captivity. In the past year, the government has banned elephants from zoos, and stopped the practice of temple elephants being forced to bless devotees. Regulations against street begging, which causes the serious injury and death of elephants hit by vehicles, are being strengthened. The owner or mahout of a street begging elephant is fined, as well as the person who pays to feed the elephant. The Elephant Task Force recommended elephant care centers (life-time sanctuaries) as an alternative for elephants living in captivity. And finally, earlier this month, India recognized their elephants with the well-deserved official status of National Heritage Animal, giving them the same protection as tigers.