Forest in a rat trap
Trapped from all sides by expanding towns, heavy traffic highways and railway tracks, mining and poaching, can the precious little strip of Rajaji National Park save its tigers?
Akash Bisht Chilla/Rishikesh
As the tussle between the Union ministries of environment and surface transport intensifies over environmental clearances for 17 highways across tiger reserves in the country, two choked highways - NH-58 and NH-72 - are piercing through the heart of the ecological hot spot, Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. It is effectively killing the twin hopes of repopulating tigers in the entire Shivalik Forest Region, while maintaining a healthy core population at the Jim Corbett National Park.
NH-58 connects Haridwar to Delhi, while NH-72 (A) connects Haridwar to Dehradun. Both witness heavy traffic and vehicular movement every day. Increasing tourism and developmental activities in recent years have led to massive increase of vehicles plying on these highways. "They bifurcate the park and obstruct the passage of animals from one forest division to another. This traffic is like a cancer which is spreading and eating into the park's vital organs," says SS Rasaily, Project Director, Rajaji National Park.
In 2007, park authorities conducted a survey to calculate the number of vehicles that pass through the two highways everyday. The results were shocking: 29,000 vehicles ply on these highways on a daily basis and as many as 600 from 1:30am to 2:30am. According to the National Highways Authority of India, these two highways witness a vehicular traffic growth of nearly 7 per cent each year. Rasaily pegs the current numbers at close to 50,000.
This virtual wall of fast moving vehicles deters the animals from passing through their natural habitat or even going to the nearby rivers to quench their thirst. Additionally, 40 trains plying on the same route during early mornings and late evenings - peak time for animals to move around the forests - are inflicting daily and long-term damage on their free movement.
"Human expressions are rude and animals do not understand them. Their natural environment is shrinking by leaps and bounds while traffic and railways play havoc on their well-being in Rajaji. A train engine's sound or a loud horn can be very discomforting for animals, but do we care?" asks SK Chandola, former Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttarakhand.
Nestled in the foothills of the Shivalik Range of Himalayas, Rajaji is blessed with some of the most pristine and picturesque forests in India. This 820 sq km park is precious ecological heritage that is home to magnificent biodiversity, flora and fauna, water bodies and streams. Wild animals like the tiger, elephant, leopard, sloth bear, deer and king cobra, among other species, inhabit the forest. The pristine wilderness is unmatched. Covering three districts of Uttarakhand, the park has more than 400 species of birds, including rare ones.
The park shot to fame after reports confirmed that the park has the capacity to sustain a healthy breeding population of wild tigers and act as a catalyst for ensuring healthy tiger population across north India. A Wildlife Institute of India report, The Status of Tigers, Co-Predators and Prey in India, 2008, declared it as the most promising landscape for long-term tiger conservation that would help in repopulating the forests which were once ruled by this majestic predator. The report reads: "If such small breeding populations in mini core areas are fostered in Rajaji by good management practices and protection, there is a possibility of repopulating the Shivalik Forest Division (UP) by dispersing tigers from Rajaji."
The Corbett Park, with 160 tigers, is considered as the source population of the entire terai region. Known to be wanderers, tigers disperse from the Corbett Park through corridors and occupy forests in and around Rajaji. They have reportedly been sighted in the far flung forests of Tehri up to an elevation of 3000m. The source value of the Corbett Park can only be sustained if these stray tigers are allowed free passage to the west in Rajaji and adjoining forests via natural corridors and crucial linkages.
Much to the great predator's agony, owing to intense anthropogenic pressure, these passages bottleneck free animal movement. "Linkages like Lansdowne, Ganga Chilla-Motichur and Yamuna River Corridor block the tiger's movement and need better management," says Rasaily.
The Lansdowne forest division in close proximity to the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary in Corbett Park facilitates tiger movement from Corbett Park to Lansdowne and then to Rajaji Park and adjoining forests divisions in the west. Though the area has sufficient forest cover, low prey base due to poaching and increasing human activity is a hindrance for the tiger's free movement. However, recent hidden camera shots have revealed tigers in the Kolluchaur region of the Lansdowne division, including a breeding tigress. But the chances of their survival look grim.
Lansdowne is under constant anthropogenic pressure from Gujjars and villages living in and around the forest. They are destroying crucial tiger habitat and with the division not part of a protected area, the forest officials express their inability to manage the area suitably. "Gujjars are more than willing to relocate and since the division is not part of the protected area, there is hardly anything that we can do for the Gujjars or the forest," says a senior forest officer.
The Yamuna River Corridor too suffers from increasing human interference, making it extremely difficult for tigers to survive. Crucial for dispersing tigers from the Rajaji Park to Kalesar Forest in Haryana, the corridor suffers from illegal encroachments from the boulder mining mafia. Experts are of the opinion that immediate government intervention to tackle the illegal mining mafia in the area is crucial for tiger introduction in these forests.
Park officials often express helplessness and a limited mandate owing to lack of funds and facilities that elude them despite decent tiger numbers. According to sources, the workforce in adjoining forest divisions of Lansdowne, Haridwar and Dehradun is demotivated and envies facilities that are provided to other protected areas. The Lansdowne forest division has a manpower of 35 while the nearby Kalagarh division under the Corbett Park employs 142 persons. "Why this bias? Other parks get huge funds and facilities, our tigers are tigers too, not dogs. We don't have jeeps or guns. If tigers have to increase, patrolling has to be intensified. For that we need more manpower and modern facilities. And if they cannot do this, the least they could do is to provide us with clean drinking water," says a disgruntled forest officer.
Mindless development activities in and around Rajaji Park is turning into a nightmare for conservationists who dream of turning the landscape into a tiger haven. Says Chandola, "Rajaji is a thin strip of forest that is surrounded by big towns like Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun. These expanding townships are confining the animals to small spaces which can spell doom for all the species, including tigers."
He mentions how villages have turned into towns, towns to cities while forests have only shrunk in recent years. He recalls, "Gone are the days when I would sit in a village courtyard and watch wild animals from close proximity. This 'islandisation' of the park will devastate its pristine ecology."
Also posing a threat to the ecology of Rajaji Park is a toxic foreign weed (lantana). This rapidly growing weed is ruining the habitat, spreading its tentacles through most of the park, eliminating the diversity of species and sub-species of grass, small plants and shrubs. "Due to its toxicity, the weed is usually avoided by the animals. Though it increases the green cover of the forest, it deprives herbivores of their diet of grass and other smaller plants," points GS Rajwar, an environment scientist.
"Lantana is turning Rajaji into an ecological desert. It adapts perfectly to any environment and allows nothing else to survive," informs Rasaily. According to the forest department, 5,000 hectares of land out of the total of 26,000 hectares was cleared of lantana, but to everyone's dismay, the weed had spread further to 36,000 hectares. "Such is the endurance of the weed that even its seeds have a life of 60 years," he says.
Poaching too is a dangerous threat. Though no cases of tiger poaching have been reported from the park, poaching of other animals is a routine. "We are not aware of any tiger poaching in the area, but cases of leopard and deer poaching have been brought to our notice," says Tito Joseph, Programme Manager, Wildlife Protection Society of India. CBI sources confirmed Tito's views. Timber poaching and illegal mining is shrinking crucial habitat too.
Officials in Dehradun confirmed the poaching of wild animals and cited poverty as the sole reason for the crime. "Part of the traditional hunting communities, people living around these forests, are very poor and do get involved in the crime for easy bucks. Rajaji is such an open park and people can easily enter from any corner without the forest department's knowledge," informs Chandola. Another peril to the tiger population in the park are seasonal forest fires that turn huge tracts of forests to ash in a matter of few hours. "Forest fires during summers are attributed to humans living in and around the park area," says Rasaily. Fires during the recently concluded Kumbh Mela continued unabated for days. Fortunately, torrential rains helped in dousing the fire that would have otherwise decimated acres of pristine forestland and turned them into empty graveyards.
However, despite several adversities, the park authorities are hopeful of turning Rajaji Park into a tiger retreat. Chandola is optimistic and claims that the 14 tiger mark could easily reach to 60 if the government shows the will to save the tiger and its habitat in Uttarakhand. Confirming Chandola's view, a forest official in Dehradun points to a study which claims that the park and its adjoining areas have the largest prey base for tigers in the world. "If managed and monitored strictly, we can achieve these numbers as these forests are a haven for the tigers to bloom," says Chandola.
The forest department has initiated several steps for tiger conservation by proposing to build three flyovers - two flyovers on NH-72 and one on NH-58 - to ensure peaceful animal passage. Rasaily has vowed to annihilate any sort of poaching from the forests under his jurisdiction and plans to add huge tracts of grassland for tiger survival. Locally extinct from 29 per cent of the districts of the Shivalik Gangetic flood plains, the great predator could make a grandiose return to these forests only if the breeding populations of tigers thrive inside the Rajaji Park. "If the tiger has to survive in India for generations to come, Rajaji needs fostering and care. Only then will the wild cats flourish in the forests that were their natural home before we forced them out," says Rasaily.