ENTER THE CORRIDOR

Published: Mon, 07/18/2011 - 09:10 Updated: Mon, 07/18/2011 - 09:12
If precious forest corridors are ravaged by the onslaught of ‘development’, the protected forest might turn into a glorified zoo
Akash Bisht Chindwara (Madhya Pradesh)
 
The first, transparent monsoon showers have cooled the dry, parched forests of Central India, turning the hot, humid landscape into a natural, moist paradise. The rains have infused new life into these tropical dry deciduous forests of Madhya Pradesh that are buzzing with kaleidoscopic sounds of insects and birds celebrating the arrival of life-affirming rains. With their long colourful tail feathers raised in the air, peacocks dance a measured, meticulous dance to woo patient, prospective partners, while male deer lock horns to claim a female mate. It’s magical and inevitable. The rains have transformed these dense sal and bamboo forests into erotic love 
nests. Deep inside the forests, it’s time for courting. 
 
Close to one of these forests, a group of wildlife experts is preparing for a mission of a different kind. Huddled together in a small office of the Jamai forest division of Chindwara district forest department, they hurriedly unpack large cardboard boxes that have been imported from the US. The boxes contain cameras that would be used to photograph wild animals to establish their presence in this small patch of forest that connects the sprawling Satpura Tiger Reserve to Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Effective in monitoring and documenting wild animals across the world, these cameras have become a rage among wildlife experts. 
 
The exterior of the camera is painted in green to camouflage it in natural surroundings. Jyotirmay Dey, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) researcher, checks the camera for any damages. Once satisfied, he inserts alkaline batteries that will power it. He then opens the back flap and reveals that the camera has heat and 
motion sensors which automatically shoot a picture if there is any movement or change in temperature in its line of sight. 
 
Once powered, the camera is inserted with Scandisk 2-GB memory cards to store pictures. He tightens the screws and the camera is ready for installation. He announces to the rest of the team that the machine is good to go. Soon, they board a gypsy to find a suitable place to put the twin cameras. The gypsy snakes through the treacherous mountainous terrain and 30 minutes into the journey, it comes to a sudden halt. 
 
The driver asks everyone to de-board and announces that it isn’t safe to use the four-wheel drive for the rest of the passage, and the journey would be pursued on foot. The forest guards and two villagers, who apparently know the right place to install the cameras, lead the way while the rest of the team follows.        
 
A long walk through dense forest and thick green leads to a rocky patch on a mountainous slope, and these is where villagers have often seen leopard cubs play. Joyous with the announcement, Jyotirmay paces his way to the top of the rocky patch and scans the nearby terrain with his waterproof binoculars. He then pulls out his Sony digital camera and takes photographs from different angles. 
 
After scanning the area, he announces that the team would have to look for an alternate site to place the cameras. “It would be difficult to place the cameras here as the land is uneven and the camera needs a firm base. Also, they could get stolen if they are out in the open. It happened in many places during the tiger population estimation exercise in 2010,” he adds. 
 
Adjacent to the rocks is a large thicket of thorny lantana shrub and many believe that this could be a possible hideout for wild animals like leopards. One of the villagers announces, “We’ll have to crawl through the thicket just like four-legged animals to reach the leopardess’ den.” Crawling through the thicket, everyone follows a small trail that leads to a large rock where the cat’s cubs apparently rest during the day. Everybody was moving cautiously when, suddenly, another forest guard asks the team to be still and wait for further instructions. It seems that the leopardess is just around the corner. 
 
A villager armed with a long stick cautiously moves forward to check out on her, but his cover is blown by the crackling of dried leaves under his rubber sandals. A loud movement in the nearby bushes is followed by a long silence. “We missed her. She ran away. I don’t know if her cubs were with her, but she was definitely here,” he says, in suppressed angst.
 
Jyotirmay starts to scan the surrounding area and stumbles upon some pugmarks and claw marks. He informs, “It’s a leopard and we should put our cameras here. Pugmarks suggest that this route is frequented by the animal. The dense shrub would camouflage the cameras perfectly.” He and his team then ask the villagers to leave since they don’t want them to know about the cameras. With the help of his team member, he crawls towards a trail and starts to strap a camera on one of the shrubs. He then switches on the camera and the team leaves.  
 
The purpose of installing the camera in this patch of forest in Jamai municipality is to record any big cat presence in the area. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has asked WWF to submit photographic evidence for the same. The exercise is being undertaken because this patch of forests acts as a connecting forest (also called corridors) between two tiger reserves. Considered one of the most important corridors in Central India, it could facilitate tiger movement between Satpura and Pench tiger reserve and help maintain genetic viability between the two populations. Increasing developmental activities and anthropogenic pressure threatens this forest cover. 
 
“If we could prove that tigers and other wild animals are using this corridor, then it might help in restoring and even maintaining this with some protection,” says Jyotirmay. The team intends to install 18 more cameras on this corridor at Navegaon, Damuah and Lavagogri to establish the claim. “There have been tiger sightings at Lavagogri and we need to prove this by using these state-of-the-art cameras,” Jyotirmay adds. 
 
However, coal mining, road widening, railway lines, and increasing human settlements and encroachments are threatening this precious corridor, If this corridor is lost, it could increase the ‘islandisation’ of these reserves, fostering the fatal effects of inbreeding. The forests become isolated and the animals become forcibly trapped in a restricted geographical zone. This could finally seriously damage the gene pool, threatening the species’ future generations.
 
“Several coal mines have been proposed in Chindwara and adjoining districts, and these threaten the corridors. Also, the state highway that joins NH-69 and a railway line at Navegaon are piercing through the corridors, hampering animal movement. Several animals have been killed while trying to cross these hurdles,” says Chittranjan Dave of WWF. 
 
Considered crucial for connecting small viable populations of animals with large source populations, corridors help in maintaining genetic viability and also provide refuge to various wild animals. “The promotion of habitat configurations that enhance connectivity within fragmented landscapes directly counters the detrimental effects of isolation. Linkages have a number of major benefits. They assist the movement of individual animals through otherwise inhospitable environments, including wide-ranging animals, migratory species and dispersing individuals. Dispersal movements between fragments can benefit declining populations by supplementing small populations before they disappear, or they allow opportunities for habitats to be recolonised should local extinction occur. Linkages also assist in the continuity and maintenance of ecological processes, especially those that depend on animal vectors, such as pollination, seed dispersal and predation,” writes Andrew F Bennett in Linkages in the Landscape: The Role of Corridors and Connectivity in Wildlife Conservation. 
 
Dr Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, NTCA, agrees that corridors are crucial for conservation and are an ecological necessity for permitting gene flow and reducing mortalities owing to infighting. “The loss of corridors could result in insularisation, and that could eventually lead to extinction of the species. However, you need growth. You need coal for power, roads for development, so one can’t be anti-development. One needs to bring a balance between the two, and by studying these areas we can suggest alternate areas for such development activities,” he argues. 
 
He informed Hardnews that NTCA has requested various states across India for detailed, well-researched reports on linkages and their present condition. “We want states to report about whether such forest linkages are strong, weak, or have disappeared. Once we have the reports, we will then decide on restorative management policies,” Gopal informs. 
 
Increasing human presence in this forest corridor has taken its toll on wildlife in these green zones. Unfortunately, the forests have few, limited or minimal prey base, forcing the predators to attack livestock and domestic cattle, and then fall prey to revenge killings by local communities who are dependent on the forests. However, such occurrences have gone down considerably in the past few months as the government now provides adequate compensation for every livestock killed. 
 
“The moment we get information of any livestock killed by a tiger or a leopard, we send our team to the location and put these camera traps. The kill is monitored by the forest department so that no revenge killings take place. These cameras also help us in documenting these animals, and with the compensation scheme, the villagers too don’t feel the loss,” 
says Dave. 
 
The importance of ecological forest corridors is crucial to the survival of tigers since it is these patches of forests that male sub-adults and older males use in order to establish new territories. Once the sub-adult males are forced to leave their natal territories, they disperse to other forests using these corridors. Similarly, older males who have lost their territory to younger ones use these routes to look for newer areas. “If these precious corridors are lost, then these males would be confined to smaller landscapes, leading to increased infighting. Many tigers have succumbed to infighting in the past as they had nowhere to go. If corridors are lost, then we would be able to hold only certain populations in these reserves, and that would be detrimental for the future of this great predator,” says Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India.
 
Recently, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh said that protecting corridors was virtually impossible as all forms of development would come to standstill, and it is difficult for the government to come out with a policy on corridors. With one-third of the tigers residing outside the protected or core areas, the statement came as a shock to many wildlife conservationists, who believe the government has decided to pay attention to only the tigers inside the protected reserves.    
 
“If long-term survival of tigers in the Indian forests has to be ensured, then it has to be done by protecting the corridors, otherwise these national parks would turn into glorified zoos with great possibilities of inbreeding,” says Belinda. 
 
However, Gopal is optimistic. He believes that many state governments are doing their bit by coming up with plans on restoring these areas. “They intend to monitor, safeguard and harmonise development. We have also asked them to factor the concerns of tigers before making any developmental activities. If this happens, the future of the tiger is in safe hands,” he concludes.     

If precious forest corridors are ravaged by the onslaught of ‘development’, the protected forest might turn into a glorified zoo
Akash Bisht Chindwara (Madhya Pradesh)

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