The country’s premier wildlife body, known for its scientific rigour in the field of conservation biology, has been entrusted with the task of suggesting a mitigation plan to reduce the impact of a high-speed highway that will cut through an important tiger habitat in central India.
The issue that has seen many a legal battle with long winding twists and turns made some headway when because of pressure from conservation groups, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) agreed to put mitigation measures in place that would help wild animals to cross, thereby reducing chances of road kills. However, even those measures now are in danger of not serving their purpose because of glaring mistakes on behalf of the chief scientific body, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
The Kanha Pench Corridor is one of the best tiger corridors in the country and vital for the long-term viability of tiger populations in the central Indian landscape. Yet the NHAI, as part of its ambitious golden quadrilateral project linking Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai, wants to build a four-lane expressway that would splice open a vital tiger corridor connecting two famous wildlife parks, Kanha and Pench, in Madhya Pradesh. A study by the Wildlife Institute of India had asked for mitigation measures, such as flyovers and underpasses, in 2012 to ensure wild animals were not harmed and it was on the basis of this condition that NHAI had been given the go-ahead for the project by the courts.
But now scientists and environment groups, who fought for the mitigation structures, have discovered that there are major deviations in the location of the structures from what was proposed by the Wildlife Institute of India.
The mistakes are so glaring they could lead to death of several animals if not built at the right spot. Of the nine structures that were to be built, it has now been discovered that there are errors in at least five GPS (global positioning system) locations, between what was proposed and what is being constructed. While the deviations in four structures could be ignored as a result of the GPS errors, there are larger errors for the bigger structures. For instance, the difference in structure number 7 is more than 1,136 metres (more than a kilometre) while in structure number 6, it is as high as 14,165 metres (that’s more than 14 km).
The author of the Wildlife Institute of India report, Bilal Habib, when contacted by this writer, admitted that there are some errors. But he stated that “on the ground a few hundred metres here and there should not change anything for the wild animals." Local environmental groups are contesting this claim—they argue that this has been a 15-year-long battle and there is a science behind the location of the structures; they are based on thousands of hours of scientific observation of the species that use these locations and at what spot. A hundred metres is a big difference when it comes to science, especially when the spots were chosen on the basis of hours of scientific observations along the corridor.
If these are deviated from, not only would the errors prolong the legal battle, it could undo all the hard work put in to ensure there are fewer deaths of wild animals on this highway. Already on the existing road, more than 1,035 wild animals, from snakes to leopards, have been killed because of high-speed traffic, according to a study conducted by WWF-India titled ‘Status and Conservation of Kanha Pench Corridor in 2014’. If the exact locations for constructing the underpasses and mitigation structures are not followed, imagine how much higher these fatalities would be. That is the concern raised by environmental groups.
It may be true that there was no mala fide intent on the part of the scientists at Wildlife Institute who admit that errors were made. But it’s the complacency with which the report has been prepared and the concomitant errors that could mean the difference between life and death for the wild animals that use this corridor. At the time of writing this piece, the National Tiger Conservation Authority has summoned the scientists from Wildlife Institute to resolve the matter. The institute must pull up its socks; there are so many who look up to this premier institution when it comes to wildlife biology.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and currently working on a book titled Restoring Nature for Oxford University Press.