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The forest in the vicinity of Seoni located in Madhya Pradesh where Kipling’s famous characters live is today the Pench National Park and Tiger Reserve. Photos: Ananda Banerjee/Mint
The forest in the vicinity of Seoni located in Madhya Pradesh where Kipling’s famous characters live is today the Pench National Park and Tiger Reserve. Photos: Ananda Banerjee/Mint

The other Jungle Book

As fans prepare to revisit 'The Jungle Book', the real-life forest landscape where Rudyard Kipling penned his tales is languishing in neglect and the animals are fighting for survival

Walt Disney’s live-action remake of its own 1967 animation film The Jungle Book hit the screens in India on Friday, a week ahead of its global release.

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic tales of a boy called Mowgli growing up with his animal friends who converse in human voices to advocate the ways of the wild, The Jungle Book enjoys a cult following among both children and adults across the world.

As fans prepare to revisit and be entertained once again by Mowgli, Shere Khan the tiger, Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Akela the wolf, the real-life forest landscape where Kipling penned his tales in 1893-94 is languishing in neglect and the animals they celebrate are fighting to survive.

The forest in the vicinity of Seeonee (now spelt as Seoni, located in Madhya Pradesh) where Kipling’s famous characters live is today the Pench National Park.

Last month, a tigress and her two young cubs were found dead from poisoning within the reserve. According to news reports, in the past eight months, Pench has lost at least nine tigers. A probe is currently under way to determine how they died.

In the past couple of years, conservationists have been fighting a court battle to minimize the impact of a road expansion project in the forest corridor between Pench National Park and Kanha National Park.

During Kipling’s era, the two national parks formed one contiguous forest landscape. Over time, human intervention has nibbled away large tracts of the forest, and what is left now is just a patch of it.

This S-shaped forest patch connecting the two parks covers 16,000 sq. km and is known as the Kanha-Pench corridor. This is an important corridor that facilitates tiger dispersal between the two reserves and acts as a refuge for several other mammals—wild dogs, sloth bears, leopards, hyenas, jackals and deer, to name a few.

National Highway 7 bypasses the Pench National Park and goes through this forest corridor.

Expansion of the highway, from two lanes to four and then six, is currently being carried out on the periphery of Pench National Park, a 37km stretch from Mansar in Maharashtra to Khawasa on the border with Madhya Pradesh. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is carrying out the expansion.

According to conservation biologists, the widening of the highway along with the infrastructure development that accompanies such projects is a major threat to this critical wildlife habitat.

“Wildlife populations often decline due to the cumulative impact of roads over time. It is important to note that it is not merely the length of the road (or area under the road surface itself) that is of relevance in assessing impact but many additional factors," T.R. Shankar Raman, senior scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation, wrote in a background paper for the National Board for Wildlife.

“As these different impacts can affect varying extents of areas on either side in the habitats that they pass through, the cumulative impact of roads and the road network can be substantial and severe or more detrimental than other effects such as forestry or land-use conversion," he wrote.

“The area of forest habitat affected by roads (ecological footprint) may be much larger than the actual cleared footprint due to negative edge effects that penetrate the forest to varying distances," he added.

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), after an extensive study, had recommended, as a mitigation measure, 10 underpasses of seven metres height each, 5.5km in total length, at the most vulnerable points where tigers and other wildlife cross the highway between Mansar in Maharashtra and Seoni in Madhya Pradesh.

Under political pressure and objections from NHAI, WII had to alter the recommendations twice—first with underpasses 2.7km long and 4.5m high. Later, they were further reduced to 2.2km in length with an improvement of half a metre in height.

According to media reports in 2015, NHAI appropriated 49.246 hectares of forest land for the road-widening works; 30,000 trees were chopped down.

In February this year, this writer travelled on the road to find numerous, age-old grand banyan trees that once dotted the roadside felled. Yet, India’s national tree hadn’t given up on life; a few leftover trunks had sprouted new leaves.

To ecologists, the ficus tree is a keystone species and an important resource for biodiversity. Over 1,200 species of birds and animals are known to feed on fruits of different ficus species in the world.

According to the book Sacred Plants of India, by Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam, the planting of a banyan tree has been a popular ritual in India. It is one of the nine sacred trees whose twigs are used to feed sacrificial fires, and whose leaves are used as fodder and also stitched together to make plates.

Greed for development has overridden ecological and cultural considerations. Banyan trees are getting felled across India, where once it was a source of shade for weary travellers.

The Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court is yet to rule on the legal challenge mounted by conservationists against the highway expansion project.

Conservationists and environmental activists are critical of the ministry of environment and forests, which has undermined the scientific expertise of two of its most prestigious institutions, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and WII, to pursue the project.

“Today, the credibility of WII as a scientific institution and NTCA as India’s flagship conservation programme is at stake due to political interference," a senior conservation scientist said on condition of anonymity.

The government is hosting the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi on 12-14 April, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be addressing an august gathering on India’s success in tiger conservation. Will his government find a way to save the legacy of the other Jungle Book?

This is the second part of a series on how infrastructure projects are affecting natural habitats.

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