We are losing rare wildlife in hit-and-run accidents in reserves meant to protect them
In the last week of February, a tigress was killed — a hit and run case in a village close to Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. She had a cub, who was observed next to its mother’s body, unable to stand, apparently perplexed, in a state of shock. The cub is doomed — at best it will be condemned to captivity, at worst, starve to death, unable to survive without its mother.
This is the not an isolated incident. On July 28, 2011, incidentally eve of ‘International Tiger Day’, a three-month-old cub was crushed under a vehicle as she hurried to keep pace with her mother while crossing a road in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Next day, there was another death — this time, a young tigress was killed by a speeding jeep on the State highway at Dudhwa Tiger Reserve.
Both these fatalities occurred on roads that slash through tiger reserves which are core critical tiger habitats deemed to be inviolate. Tigers killed on roads make news, the toll on reptiles, amphibians and smaller mammals touches thousands, and is rarely accounted for.
Roads also increase the probability of accidental encounters between tigers and people, leading to more conflict situations. They give easy accessibility to timber smugglers and poachers. In Karnataka, in August 2010, forest officials arrested a gang of poachers which killed ‘game’ (including a gaur they shot no less than 22 times) as they drove along forest roads in Bandipur and Nagarhole tiger reserves. A study in the Russian far east showed how roads directly lead to tiger mortality. From 1992 to 2000 the Wildlife Conservation Society studied the fate of radio-collared Siberian tigers in the Russian far-east living in areas with no roads, secondary roads and primary roads. Their findings showed that there was a 100 per cent survival rate for adult tigers living in areas with no roads and just 55 per cent survival rate for adult tigers living in areas with primary roads. The real impact of roads is rarely understood, and rarely finds concern in mainstream planning.
Besides tragic accidents that crush rare wild creatures, there are other not-so-obvious but equally lethal fallouts of roads in protected areas. Roads fragment an already highly fragmented habitat. They break contiguity, impinging on forests and well-worn migratory paths of animals, break tree cover and canopy, slice vegetation. Roads serve as conduits to soil erosion and landslides. Crucially, they give accessibility. Roads are the first step to ancillary development and an increasing human footprint in the area. For example, a road through Velavadar National Park in Gujarat is proposed to be upgraded, reportedly to cater to the special industrial and investment zones coming up in the vicinity. The advent of a road marks the death of wilderness.
As India aspires for double-digit economic growth, infrastructure development — highways, roads, power and mines — take priority, with little space for ecological concerns. Today, the gravest threat to wildlife is the pressure to open up forests for coal mines, thermal power plants, highways and railways, ravaging pristine wildlife habitats.
Let’s concentrate on roads. India’s road network, the second biggest in the world, 4.42 million km, (or 0.66km of highway for every sq km of land), with a target to expand at an ambitious rate of 20km, everyday. From the conservation point of view, roads passing through forests, wetlands and grasslands are of concern. There is a constant, increasing demand for construction of new roads, as well as widening and expansion of existing roads in tiger reserves, corridors, and pristine forests that are home to rare creatures.
Take the much-publicised case of NH-7 which will cut over 60km of crucial tiger habitat that links Kanha, Pench and Satpura tiger reserves — a landscape with about 150 tigers. Scientists warn that if the corridor is broken, the future of the tiger in this landscape is doomed. Plans are afoot to expand the highway cutting though Nagarjuna Srisailam Tiger Reserve, and also NH-37 which circumvents Kaziranga, the refuge of the great one-horned rhinoceros and with no less than 100 tigers.
There is a road proposed through Flamingo City in Gujarat which will be an unmitigated disaster for India’s only nesting site for these graceful birds. Incidentally, there is also a demand to upgrade the ‘Old Kandi Road’ passing through Corbett, where the young cub was run over in July.
Laws receive scant regard in these ambitious networking plans. For example, to carve out NH-6, the National Highways Authority of India ploughed through the tiger corridor that connects Nagzira Sanctuary and the Navegaon National Park in Maharashtra, without mandatory permissions, bypassing wildlife and forest laws. Similarly, the NHAI gave short shrift to preconditions laid down by the Forest Advisory Committee when it allowed the diversion of forest land to expand the highway through the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong elephant corridor.
While one can understand the imperative of building and expanding roads and highway network, that does not offer an excuse to ignore and circumvent the laws of the land. In fact, in 2010, the then Surface Transport Minister, Mr Kamal Nath (ironically, previously also the Union Minister for Environment and Forests), pressed for the NHAI to be able to avoid all regulatory committees like the Forest Advisory Committee and the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife while building and expanding highways, a move that was fortunately laid to rest given that it contravenes the law of the land.
The grave ecological impacts of roads through protected areas and wildlife corridors cannot be overstated, and with the demand for new roads and expansion of roads through protected areas, critical tiger habitats and corridors coming up frequently, it is crucial that the NHAI takes on board ecological concerns.
There needs to be close coordination between the Ministries and departments concerned to ensure that growth imperatives do not undermine wildlife concerns; that roads do not leave behind a legacy of carcasses, but build bridges to minimise the grave impacts on wildlife and habitats.
For, isn’t the ecological imperative equally crucial to our development ambitions, given that forests are the fount of, and nourish, most of our rivers?
The writer is a member, National Board of Wildlife