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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Corridor to life being choked

Without passages that allow wildlife populations to travel and interbreed, animals living in these connecting forests and protected reserves have no future. Isolated and depressed, they are also a threat to humans In 2009, I reported the destruction of the Gola River wildlife corridor that connected the Corbett landscape to the Nandour Valley and onwards into the tiger and elephant habitats of Nepal. The Gola corridor knit together a 7,000 sq km expanse of tiger and elephant habitat in Uttarakhand, supporting about 250 tigers and 1,000 elephants — the most vital part of the 20,000 sq km Terai Arc Landscape, identified as one of the three most viable habitats for long term tiger conservation. The corridor, already scarred by mining, anthropogenic pressures and heavy traffic along the Haldwani-Bareilly road, had now been further decimated — first by a railway sleeper factory, then an Indian Oil Corporation’s depot and the establishments of the Indo Tibetan Border Police. It’s gone, now, this vital link, and with it we have lost a golden opportunity to connect the Corbett landscape with the Nandour Valley and the chance to manage the tiger-elephant habitat in Uttarakhand (7,000 sq km) as a single, secure unit. Unfortunately, Gola is not an exception but the norm, with key wildlife corridors being decimated or destroyed by mining, dams, roads, railway lines and canals. The expansion of NH-7, which runs through the Kanha-Pench corridor, slashes through over 60km of tiger habitat, while NH-6 cuts through Navegaon-Nagzira, ripping the ecological corridor that once connected Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve to the Central Indian Tiger Landscape. NH-37 circumvents Kaziranga — refuge of the endangered one-horned rhino and with amongst the highest tiger densities in the world — impeding movement of animals to safe, elevated grounds in the adjoining Karbi Anglong hills during floods. The tragic fallout during this year’s flood was the loss of over 600 animals, largely because they couldn’t make it safely across the highway and the habitation onto the hills. The Chilla-Motichur corridor in Rajaji National park has been slashed by highways, canals, railway line and an Army ammunition dump, while the Kosi River corridor which circumvents Corbett has tourism resorts and encroachments blocking wildlife’s access to the Kosi River and the Ramnagar Forest Division. Corridors are critical if tigers, elephants and other wide-ranging species are to have a future. Let’s understand it from the context of the tiger: Most of our reserves are too small to hold genetically viable populations. Corridors facilitate the species’ migration and allow populations to interbreed resulting in genetic exchange that leads to greater health and vitality. According to the Wildlife Institute of India, a minimum population of 20 breeding tigress in a core/critical habitat of about 800 sq km is essential. Below this figure the probability of extinction exponentially increases. Most of our reserves are too small to sustain the minimum ‘safe’ number of breeding tigresses. In the absence of corridors, populations get isolated, causing them to suffer inbreeding depression, leading to disease, overall population degeneration and inevitable extinction. A far more immediate and tragic consequence of habitat isolation is human-wildlife conflict. As large mammals like tigers, and especially elephants, attempt to move between habitats, they are hindered by human habitation and infrastructure in between. Railway lines, expressways, canals, factories, mines, etc prevent them from making safe passage and push them into direct conflict with local people. Crop, livestock and even human life are frequently lost. The number of cases of wildlife roadkills of endangered species, cases of elephant electrocution, trains running over elephants, poisoning of cattle-killing tigers, tigers straying into highly populated areas, crop raiding by elephants, mobs chasing them and people getting killed are all testament to this fact. Today, several parts of the country are locked in a tragic human-elephant conflict situation. One misconception that must be erased is that corridors are ‘protected areas’. Corridors do not have to be pristine parkland but could, in fact, include agricultural areas, orchards, tea or coffee plantations, and other multi-use landscape — just as long as they are “wildlife permeable”, to provide for safe passage. It is important, however, to factor in wildlife concerns in land use plans or development activities in wildlife corridors and landscapes. around wildlife corridors. We know that when we push tigers further and further into tiny pockets, we seal their fate. Tigers and elephants in isolated forests, with no remaining corridors connecting them to other forests, are caught in a genetic dead end. We cannot claim to protect our wildlife and then write off their corridors, break apart their landscapes. Development imperatives must take into account wildlife concerns. Conserving habitat corridors through policy, legislation, and appropriate mitigation measures is the need of the hour given the growth imperative and the associated growth in infrastructure development. Else, let’s bid them goodbye — the tiger, the elephant, the others: All symbols of our natural heritage. (The author is a member, National Board of Wildlife)

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