Around the country, train accidents continue to kill scores of elephants. Numerous elephants in the Palakkad division have met the same disastrous fate. Urgent conservation measures are required to stop this recurring tragedy

From around 2009 to 2020-21, train accidents claimed the lives of 186 elephants on railway tracks in India. This does not take into account the unknown number of elephants injured and later dying in forests. In southern India, the Palakkad-Coimbatore railway line has become a disaster zone for elephants. 

Three adult bull elephants wandered into Palakkad town in August 2017, crossing highways, country roads, and fields and causing a commotion among city folk unaccustomed to wild elephants. Despite forest department staff trying to drive them back into the forest using firecrackers, the elephants eventually travelled more than 30 kilometres away from the forest, bathing and drinking at the Bharathapuzha River and sleeping in bushes amidst human habitations. After wandering for several days, one evening, they began retracing their steps to return to their forest, all in one night. This incident has become a significant milestone in Palakkad’s human-elephant conflict (HEC) story. After this, every HEC in Palakkad received public attention, and this incident was repeatedly used by the mainstream media and political parties to mobilise people against elephant conservation.


Speeding trains along the 30-km-long Kanjikode-Walayar-Ettimadai-Madukkarai stretch of the Palakkad-Coimbatore railway tracks have claimed the lives of around 30 elephants since 2000. Photo: PP Yoonus, CC BY-SA 4.0Cover photo: Elephants’ lives are at risk on railway tracks. Mostly, elephants wait for the train to pass before crossing the tracks, but sometimes they are confused. Photo: P A Vinayan 

In 2018, WWF-India and the Kerala Forest Department jointly conducted a study that attempted to understand the problem in detail; this involved identifying each individual elephant in the forest division, naming them, understanding their characteristics, and distinguishing the conflicts caused by each. In one year, the project identified 13 tuskers, one makhna (tuskless male) elephant, and a few herds of females; in all likelihood, most male elephants using the Palakkad division forests during that period had been identified.

My team of researchers and I often waited near the railway tracks that passed through the forest to catch a glimpse of elephants and photograph them. We often saw two or three tuskers crossing the tracks together, and every time, we feared a train might rush through at any moment.

On the afternoon of September 6th, 2018, we were waiting near the railway track as usual, hoping to see some elephants. The pale-yellow rice fields were ready to be harvested, and the landscape at the foothills of the blue Palakkad mountains was scenic. The railway line passes through an isolated patch of forest about four kilometres from the reserve forest. The track in that area is straight for about three kilometres, but it takes a small curve at the point where we were waiting. Although there are speed restrictions on trains passing through the forest at night, trains run at normal speed during the day.

Infrastructure development through forests threatens the lives of large animals. For example, railway lines in India have caused the death of endangered elephants. Photos: P A Vinayan 

We were waiting, listening to elephants breaking tree branches in the nearby forest. Some local farmers and children were with us, eagerly anticipating the elephants’ arrival. The farmers shared their hardships with us, telling us how difficult it was to grow crops in areas frequented by elephants. They complained of not having good torchlight for guarding their crops at night and requested the forest officers to arrange some.

As we waited in silence, the elephant sounds drew closer. Suddenly, a freight train appeared in the distance, moving at great speed. At the same time, a tusker (PT5) emerged from the forest, approached the track, and slowly made its way to cross it. The train was approaching fast.

A colleague jumped onto the track and shouted to the train driver to stop. The train driver, who had not seen the elephant due to the curve in the track, saw the animal, sounded the horn, and slowed down. PT5 crossed the track, and we breathed a sigh of relief. But then, another elephant appeared and stepped forward to cross the track without looking either way. The train was hurtling forward, and we feared for the elephant’s safety. Just before the train could hit it, the second elephant finished crossing the track and ran into the forest. For those few moments, we onlookers were filled with dread and anxiety. But we were relieved in the end, as the elephants made it across unscathed.

Two elephants, “Churulikkomban” (or PT5) and PT10, narrowly escaped a train accident on the Palakkad-Coimbatore railway line in September 2018. Photos: P A Vinayan 

After the last bogie passed us, the train squeaked, creaked, and halted. We spoke appreciatively about the train driver slowing down the train as soon as the first elephant entered the track. If it had been at night, the elephants would not have survived. It was heartwarming to see the farmers, who usually regarded the elephants as a threat, praying for their safety at this critical moment. We empathised with the rural people who suffered immense losses due to wild animals yet wanted to see them live.

After the incident, we reviewed the photographs and realised that the second elephant was PT10. Unfortunately, 15 months and 20 days later, PT10 was hit by a train and died at the same spot — yet another elephant killed by a train in Palakkad Forest Division. Of the 13 male elephants identified in the 2018 survey, four were lost to train accidents within 2.5 years.


According to a report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2023, 73 elephants have been run over by trains between 2017 and 2021. Photo: Sourav Dasgupta/Shutterstock 

While some people mention that the railway track passes through elephant corridors, the fact is that it only crosses small patches of forests. The major chunk of elephant habitat in the region is north of the railway track; most of it is on steep hills. The plains, most favoured by the elephants, have been converted into agricultural land and industrial areas.

The railway line runs along the foothills of Palakkad hills. On the northern side of the track are high hills, while the southern part is dedicated to agriculture. Elephants cannot move freely through these foothills due to various constraints. The suitable terrain for elephant movement between the hills and railway track comprises several private lands, which further restrict their movement. As a result, these elephants have trouble reaching the forests of Coimbatore division, Tamil Nadu.

The railway line along the foothills of the Palakkad hills passes through isolated forest patches. Photo: Favas Kalathil/Getty Images

The cause of fragmentation and degradation of forests in the plains is clear. Still, addressing the current issues related to train accidents and human-elephant conflict is more important. The isolated forest patches in the plains provide day-time refuge for elephants who enter agricultural fields at night. Most of the elephants hit by trains in this region come for crop raiding, though they may also come to access water. Churulikomban and PT10 were sighted in paddy fields at night before the fatal accident.

The railways and the Forest Department have implemented several measures to prevent accidents on railway tracks. For instance, they have cleared grass and other vegetation growing in open areas along the railway tracks, as this lush vegetation attracts elephants onto the tracks. To prevent elephant deaths on tracks, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department has constructed ramps on either side of track B in the Madukkarai-Walayar section, which helps elephants cross the tracks quickly and easily. The speed of night trains passing this area has been regulated to 45 kmph, whereas the speed limit for express and goods trains during the day is 65 kmph. Additionally, the speed limit for goods trains at night is 25 kmph. The forest departments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have deployed track watchers who regularly patrol the railway tracks and report the presence of elephants. This helps the railways alert drivers to reduce the train’s speed. However, 24X7 patrolling is not possible and walking along the tracks in the dark in rain and mist is dangerous. Similarly, slowing down trains for long distances poses problems for the railways.

The Palakkad-Coimbatore stretch has two lines, the A and B and both run through forest patches. The A line is generally used for trains running towards Palakkad, while the B line is used for trains towards Coimbatore. Both lines pass through reserve forest areas in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Conservationists in Tamil Nadu suggest that the railways should shift the B line, where the maximum number of elephant casualties have occurred, and lay it alongside the A line. With a coordinated effort between local people, Indian Railways, and the Forest Department, erecting a permanent barrier along the northern side of the B railway track is another possibility.

An elevated railway track is a permanent solution to this issue. Recently, the MP for Pollachi, K Shanmuga Sundaram, urged Union Minister of MoEFCC, Bhupendra Yadav, to temporarily divert night train services from Palakkad to Coimbatore (via Pollachi-Podanur) to avoid elephant deaths on the tracks. He also suggested fencing the lines between Madukkarai and Walayar stations, permanently barring elephants from accessing water sources and agricultural areas beyond the railway tracks. A combination of rail and electric fences would prevent elephants (including juveniles) from crossing railway tracks. Surely, we can all come together and find concrete solutions to the recurring tragedy of elephants dying on these railway tracks.

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