As wildlife habitats shrink in India, animals are in a losing battle 


Malavika Vyawahare, Hindustan Times

Date Published
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The leopard’s last victim was a man enjoying a late night smoke by a road that runs through Uttarakhand’s Rajaji national park. The cat pounced on him from behind, dragging the body a few hundred feet before clawing him apart. The mangled remains, discovered when dawn broke on May 3, were never identified.

That same night, forest personnel spotted a feline figure stealing a drink from the pond behind the forest department guesthouse in a patch of forest that clutches the Ganga’s western bank. The fear of humans had faded from the leopard’s old heart. Soon, it was surrounded, tranquilised, and later transported to an animal protection centre in nearby Chidiyapur.

An examination later revealed worn out canines, a sign that it could no longer launch ferocious attacks needed to score a meal. So it had resorted to easy prey: humans and their cattle which are available in plenty around the park, according to officials.

Shrinkage, fragmentation and deterioration of habitats are the main reasons why human-wildlife conflict is on the rise in India, according to a new draft wildlife action plan prepared by the environment ministry.

For the 8 leopards cramped into a 10 sq km area of forest land that borders the road in Rajaji survival means a constant struggle for space — especially with humans.

This is also true of other wild animals that frequently cross paths with humans. Railways, roads and power lines don’t just dissect forests; they bring humans into wildlife habitats and push animals into human settlements. Encounters don’t always end in pretty photographs.

Rajaji national park was patched together in 1983 from three sanctuaries: Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla. While the Motichur and Rajaji sanctuaries lie west of the Ganges, Chilla was on its east.

A national highway and a railway line connecting Haridwar and Dehradun run along the river banks cutting through the Chilla Motichur wildlife corridor. On three sides, the park is boxed in by voraciously expanding cities: Rishikesh, Haridwar and Dehradun.

In places where human settlements have gnawed away at habitats, wildlife corridors or narrow strips of forest land connect fragmented habitats. The corridor connecting Chilla and Motichur has withered rapidly over the decades, leaving animals stranded in more ways than one.

Since Rajaji park was declared a tiger reserve two years ago, tigers have become the centre of attention. There were 16 tigers in the park in 2014 and forest officials are keen to boost their numbers. Uttarakhand has a significant tiger population (340) but most of them are in the neighbouring Corbett tiger reserve.

There are two tigresses that inhabit a patch of forest to the west of the Ganga. The remaining 30 tigers live to the east of the river, but no tiger has braved to cross the river or the roads and people’s settlement in many years. Park officials are mulling an expensive proposal to air drop five tigers, two males and three females, into their territory from Corbett, hoping cupid strikes.

In the capture of the man-eater leopard, two of Rajaji’s resident domesticated elephants, Radha and Rangili led the charge. Their wilder counterparts — over 300 in Rajaji — however, have to roam in the wild for water sources. Most of the perennial water holes are located in Chilla, which is across the river, and criss-crossed by road and rail tracks.

In 2001, the plight of elephants hit national headlines when an elephant calf was struck by a train. The mother stood guard as her baby lay dying. When it mercifully died two days later, she was reportedly seen trying to revive the calf’s corpse.

That year, various government departments came together and decided that a stretch of the tracks would be made a special caution zone where trains would slow down considerably and the department along with volunteers from the Wildlife Trust of India, patrolled the stretch.

Between 2002 and 2012 no elephant deaths were recorded on the railway track.

Across the country, the situation remains grim. Over 200 elephants have been killed by trains in the last 30 years. “Deaths of elephants due to train accidents have assumed alarming proportion in recent past,” SS Negi, director general (forests), said in a letter to state chief wildlife wardens.

Dipankar Ghose, director, species and landscapes division, at WWF-India, blamed poorly planned infrastructure projects for the deaths. Railways are only part of the problem.

In 2011, Supreme Court had directed construction of three flyovers to divert traffic from the roads that cut through three major animal corridors, of which the most important is the Chilla-Motichur one. Six years on, the flyovers remain under-construction. To deal with swelling volume of traffic a highway expansion is currently underway to make it a six-lane highway.

Bivash Pandav, a scientist at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India, said the government should push for immediate completion of the flyovers.

While Rajaji is struggling with the intensification of human intrusions into animal habitats, Corbett, one of the most protected and oldest parks of the country, is contending with a plan to construct a national highway that cuts through its core area.

The BJP that came to power in Uttarakhand this year has promised to convert a dirt road shut to public transport into a national highway, reducing the distance between Kotdwar in Pauri Garhwal and Ramnagar in Kumaon from 162 km to about 90 km and saving about two hours.

The apex court, however, intervened, saying the road could come only if it did not harm the wildlife and ecology of the park.

Recognising the reality that roads and railway tracks are here to stay — as major roads traverse 26 of India’s 50 tiger reserves — the Wildlife Institute of India released guidelines recently for the execution of linear developmental projects like roads and highways so they have minimal impact on ecology and wildlife.

“All the development mitigation is done as an afterthought,” WII director VB Mathur noted, “This has to change.”