Valparai (Tamil Nadu)/Bandipur (Karnataka): The car brakes to a halt, and P. Jeganathan jumps out. Off the tarred road, he gingerly scrapes off the squashed, lifeless form of a snake, holds it to the car’s headlights for a quick inspection, and sets it down in the undergrowth on the road’s shoulder.
Jeganathan, a wildlife scientist, works with the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), and he spends his days teaching children of the Western Ghats about the value of wildlife. He can’t, unfortunately, do anything about the grown-ups who race through the area, one of whom ran over the snake he spotted.
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A few miles away, just outside the Anamalai wildlife sanctuary, two forest guards manage traffic over a 5km-stretch of state highway as a troop of lion-tailed macaques hesitantly crosses the road. Some monkeys linger by the roadside, waiting for a break in the vehicle flow; some dash across.
The guards try valiantly to stop the vehicles, to let the animals cross safely; some motorists stop, but most drive on.
“We brought in this measure when, a couple of years back, we lost five lion-tailed monkeys on this stretch,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, another NCF scientist. The monkeys of the Western Ghats are classified as an endangered species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Treading with caution: A road passing through the Bandipur reserve. Of the 15 national highways in Karnataka, nine pass through wildlife habitats in the Western Ghats. Photograph: Hemant Mishra/Mint
As India’s expanding network of highways and railways encroaches into hitherto isolated parts of the country, such close encounters are becoming all too frequent and deadly for wildlife from surrounding forests. Last month, a speeding goods train ploughed into seven elephants crossing the railway tracks near Binnaguri in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district. It was the deadliest accident involving wildlife in India.
The Western Ghats, classified as a biodiversity hotspot where endemic species are under threat from human activity, is particularly vulnerable. The region, more than half of which lies in Karnataka, is home to 325 globally threatened species, according to the website www.westernghats.org.in.
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The government’s ambitious target of building 20km of highway a day, some of which will cut through critical wildlife habitats and eco-sensitive biospheres, makes forest fragmentation inevitable and endangers wildlife, conservationists say. Coupled with that is a nationwide explosion of vehicular traffic.
Official policy is inconsistent, says M. Murali, director-general of the National Highway Builders Federation. Night traffic may be stopped in one area because of the presence of elephants but may be allowed in another area that is home to lions.
Road builders already have to battle a gauntlet of regulators to obtain clearances from 32 agencies, including environmental approvals, says Murali. “There should be a uniform policy,” he says. “Either don’t allow them at all or set uniform norms.”
Photograph: Hemant Mishra/Mint
But with the fragmentation of protected areas that are already under pressure from dam, road and mining projects, forest and wildlife conservation becomes that harder. Roads connect dots on a map, people on the ground, and products to markets—but they disconnect the natural world.
“Many of these roads were built when traffic density was very low, some even 100 years ago, which have over the past decade been upgraded to adjust to traffic,” says Sanjay Gubbi, a member of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board and a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India). “In the past 10 years, vehicular density has also been increasing at 10% (a year).”
A study by Gubbi, who has been focusing on roads in the vicinity of the Bandipur-Nagarhole tiger parks in southern India, notes that the country has budgeted $13.67 billion (Rs60,776 crore) for road development between fiscal 2008 and 2011.
“For example, Karnataka, home to one of the biggest tiger populations in the world, has planned upgradation and development of several new roads, some of which cut through critical tiger habitats and could have a long-term impact on the connectivity of tiger habitats,” says the study.
Of the 15 national highways in Karnataka, nine pass through important wildlife habitats in the Western Ghats, while parts of 28 state highways pass through the region. Of a total of 33.1 lakh km of the national highways in India, 26,697km pass through forests.
Not surprisingly, then, as this infrastructure has expanded, wildlife death tolls have spiked. Asha Rajvanshi, professor and head of the environment impact assessment cell at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), says that road kills have been increasing every year, although countrywide statistics are not available.
Rajvanshi is studying the impact of NH7, which slices through the Pench tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, on wildlife in the area. “Based on observations over a 430-day period, 1,035 road kills were recorded in the 9.2km stretch of the road passing through Pench,” she says.
Although the focus is usually on the bigger mammals, preliminary results of Rajvanshi’s study show that snakes and other reptiles are the most vulnerable wildlife, making up 47% of the victims, followed by mammals such as cheetal or tiger (21%), amphibians (18%), and birds such as peacocks (14%).
Rajvanshi explains that temperature-dependent reptiles are most susceptible to being run over, because they tend to bask on the warm road surfaces.
The conflict is no longer confined to the roads or the forests. Many cases are being fought in courts and in the corridors of power. In a September order, the Uttarakhand high court ruled that no natural resources should be wasted in upgrading a road cutting through the Jim Corbett tiger park, which would amount to sawing down trees in the reserve.
Cases over NH7, which connects Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh with Nagpur in Maharashtra, and NH212, which divides the Bandipur tiger reserve in Karnataka, are being fought in the Supreme Court.
Earlier this year, a battle between the ministries of environment and forest and road transport over roads cutting through forest areas reached the Prime Minister’s Office and is yet to be resolved. Road transport minister Kamal Nath criticized tardy clearances for roads passing through such areas.
Nath is overseeing the government’s ambitious road-building programme, and the highways he directs through forest and protected areas need clearances under environmental, forest and wildlife regulations.
Happily, there is precedent enough to remain optimistic. Administrative intervention, has in the past, aided the cause of conservation.
In 2008, for the first time in India, a road was ordered shut to traffic at night as a conservation measure. The Mysore district administration at the time issued an order to stop traffic from 6pm to 6am on the road bordering Nagarhole. A 10km-stretch passing through the core of the park was closed completely to traffic, barring emergency and forest department vehicles.
“This road is very critical. Not only does it connect southern Karnataka to north Kerala, it also passes through a very critical wildlife corridor,” says P.M. Muthanna, a conservation fellow with WCS.
Passing through the closed road, Muthanna points to a pack of Asiatic wild dogs and a small herd of elephants peacefully foraging by the side of the road—both rare sights around main highways.
The rest of the 18km of road bordering the park is under the night-closure notice. A.T. Poovaiah, range forest officer in Nagarhole, said the closure of the road provoked protests from the Kerala government. But it did lead to a reduction in road kills.
NH212 through Bandipur is also closed to traffic from 9pm to 6am. Trucks, buses and passenger cars line up from dawn at the forest barricades, to pass through into Kerala. Once the gates are thrown open, the vehicles start to speed, unmindful of signs warning drivers about the presence of wildlife.
The effect of clearing forests for roads, power transmission lines and water pipelines is harsher in rainforests, such as in the Western Ghats. The continuous canopy cover in these forests is essential to maintain the microclimate beneath, which fosters the richest and most intense biodiversity. Roads, in effect, break the canopy cover, which works as a barrier for exclusively arboreal species. The lion-tailed macaques in Valparai, exactly such a species, are as a result forced to use the road to cross over, putting them at risk.
In fact, experts say, there is no such thing as undisturbed forest anymore. “If you pick any one spot in a protected area in India, at maximum it is about 200m away from any man-made clearing,” says A.A. Khan, the Bandipur forest officer.
Most of the roads passing through forests have been in existence for many years, and more are getting built at a rapid pace, as India tries to reinforce its deficient infrastructure and boost economic growth.
“Of all infrastructure projects,” Rajvanshi says, “roads are hardest to control, especially when there are connectivity issues. We need to plan new ones and be cautious in upgradation. Approvals and rejections need to be science-based and not arbitrary.”
Pdf by Yogesh Kumar/Mint
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