The Assam Forest Department has seized the locomotive engine of a goods train that mowed down a 35-year-old female elephant and her one-year-old calf while passing through the Lumding Reserve Forest last month, The Sentinel reported on Wednesday. Two train drivers and a staff member were suspended.
A release from the office of Parimal Suklabaidya, Environment and Forest Minister, Assam, said that the “case was being vigorously pursued under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972)”, according to The Indian Express.
The incident took place on September 27, when the goods train ran over the elephant and her baby while they were crossing a railway track. The calf’s carcass was found at a distance of one kilometre from its mother, indicating that the train was speeding in the reserve forest, which is against the rules, the newspaper reported.
Lumding Divisional Forest Officer Pulak Choudhury told The Sentinel that since the area falls under the elephant corridor, the railway station manager was alerted to restrict the speed limit of trains to 40 km per hour. “But there were reports that the particular goods train was running in the speed of 60 km per hour,” he said.
On Tuesday, the engine (12440 WDG4) was seized from Guwahati’s Bamunimaidan Railway Yard. Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden MK Yadava refused to comment on the legal procedure of the matter, but said the “Railways will have to mend its ways”.
The Northeast Frontier Railway on Wednesday said the seizure of the engine was just a “procedural requirement”. “It is not a first of its kind incident and is a procedural requirement for enquiry,” it tweeted. “There was no operational obstruction and the locomotive is currently in use of Railways.”
While the engine was handed back to the railways for custody, a case has been registered by the forest department against the Northeast Frontier Railway. “The state police had handed over the case to the Government Railway Police,” Choudhury said. “We also instituted an inquiry under the Wildlife Protection Act.”
The forest officer added that although the authorities initially denied that the goods train was running at the speed of 60 km per hour, they later suspended the loco pilot, assistant loco pilot and another staff of the train. “The action of the Railways shows that they have confessed their guilt,” said Choudhury.
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Rajiv Das, deputy conservator of forests, northern Assam circle, Tezpur, said the railways will have to produce the engine whenever they require it for investigation. He said the engine would be used as material evidence during legal proceedings.
“In the event of any crime, just as a pistol/dagger/weapon would be recovered, in the same way, we have seized the train engine,” Das said. “We cannot keep it with us, so it has been given back to the railways now – however, they have to produce it for us whenever we require it.”
In Assam, there are nearly 29 earmarked corridors where Northeast Frontier Railways trains are supposed to operate at set speed limits, according to The Indian Express. But data provided by the Assam government from the year 2019, showed that as many as 54 elephants have died in train accidents in the area since 2010.