A HIGHWAY FOR THE TIGER

Once revived, the Kanha-Pench corridor would hugely boost tiger conservation efforts in Central India
Akash Bisht Kanha/Pench (MP)

National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has recently set up a committee of ten experts to assess different development projects related to mining, highways and railway lines that pose a threat to the crucial tiger habitats and corridors across the country. The purpose of the exercise is to study the impact of these development activities on tiger conservation and suggest a fine balance between conservation and development. The experts will cite best practices adopted by other countries and try to implement them appropriately in India, taking care of the differences in the contexts.

The ten-member team would include representatives from NTCA, Ministry of Environment and Forests, National Board for Wild Life, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), National Highway Authority of India, Ministry of Railways and Coal India Limited. The committee will use information from the 2010 all-India tiger estimation and undertake an assessment of tiger habitats, corridors and other crucial areas for conservation across the country. 

However, the committee’s most crucial role would be to assess developmental projects in the forest corridors across the country and look into the demands for land clearance.  Crucial for maintaining genetic viability among tiger populations of different tiger reserves, corridors are patches of forest land that connect one reserve with another. They offer refuge to tigers and other animals in transit. The decision to review these projects is certainly a sign of NTCA’s current focus on connecting the isolated populations to other populations.

The need for protecting the corridors to ensure the well-being of this great predator is being articulated more vocally now and gaining support. The 2010 tiger census has showcased how tigers are safe and showing good signs of recovery inside protected areas, proving that appropriate security measures are in place. The government, therefore, now wants to focus on preserving the corridors as well. 

This need for is being felt all the more as several animal corridors across the country face serious threats from developmental activities, confining wild animals to small islands. One such corridor in great distress is the famous Kanha-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh (MP) — the route that tigers take on their way from Kanha to Pench and vice versa. It helps in connecting small local tiger populations to larger source populations. There is a long history of wild animals using this corridor to move from one reserve to another and back. 

However, with increasing developmental activities and anthropogenic pressure, the habitat has seen considerable degradation, forcing the animals to abandon it. Considering the importance of the Kanha-Pench corridor for the viability of the Central Indian tiger population, the state forest department has asked Sunil Agarwal, Forest Conservator, MP, to prepare a management plan for the Kanha-Pench corridor. 

Spread over more than 3,145 sq kms, the corridor is 160kms long and passes through Seoni, Balaghat and Mandla districts of MP. “A century ago there was a continuous patch of forest, but it has shrunk with human interference, leading to discontinuity of forest cover in many parts. This has made these parts unfeasible for animal movement. Then it was suggested that we revive the corridor, and therefore this management plan,” says Agarwal. 

A considerable amount of revenue land also falls in the corridor. In fact, people living in the 442 villages on this corridor number no less than 3,97,000. In other words, more than 75,000 families share this forest with the animals. This revenue land once had dense forest cover, which has dwindled over the years owing to increasing anthropogenic pressure. Most of these families have lived in these forests for centuries and have been dependent on the forest produce. 

However, the silver lining is, except for the revenue land, the corridor still has a dense forest cover and only nine per cent of it is degraded. “More than 57 per cent of the corridor has sufficient water sources, and the rest of the area has to be developed. The present sources are perennial and include rivers like Benganga, Heran and Banjar, as well as small nallahs, natural springs and stock dams,” adds Agarwal.  

During his study, Agarwal mapped the area and divided it into 4.625-sq-km-size grids. The total area had 574 such grids — 340 have water while the rest need to be developed. “The remaining 234 grids need introduction of new ponds to ensure animal viability. Man-made ponds need to be introduced in these water-scarce areas, but that is a very expensive proposition. Each pond costs Rs 10 lakh,” he mentions. 

The Kanha Pench corridor has a very good forest cover, but the lack of fodder is a cause of concern.  Agarwal adds, “There is a need to improve the grass cover as that would help attract more prey species, especially Gaur, to these corridors. That, in turn, would encourage the big cats to use these patches of forests for transit.” Indeed, the need for habitat improvement was visible when this reporter ventured into parts of this corridor. 

In 2004-05, the entire region between Sheoni and Balaghat saw a phenomenon called ‘bamboo flowering’ that left the whole region bereft not only of bamboo, but also wild animals as bamboo plays an important role in providing them shelter and fodder. “Now, the forest department needs to ensure that the regeneration process is carefully monitored according to the prescribed steps, and only then can the forest be regenerated in a way conducive to animals,” adds Agarwal.  

The lack of a prey base forces the tigers to hunt domestic cattle, leading to increasing hostility among villagers towards the big cat. Many tigers have succumbed to revenge killings across the country. However, interim relief schemes introduced by the forest department and several NGOs — compensation is paid for every cattle that gets killed — has helped reduce revenge killings. “Whenever cattle get killed we provide immediate compensation to the villagers to calm them down, so they do not resort to revenge killing,” says HS Mohanta, Deputy Conservator of Forests (Core),Kanha National Park. 

A major concern for the forest department, however, is the proposed diversion of 69.759 hectares of forest land for upgrading the Gondia-Jabalpur railway line to broad gauge, which would surely hamper animal movement through this corridor. While the Gondia-Balaghat line has been turned into broad gauge, the 75km Balaghat-Nainpur line that cuts through the corridor is yet to be converted. 

“If this line is turned into broad gauge, then trains that were running at 40kms/hr would run at 100kms/hr. Also, the frequency of trains would increase as this line would reduce the travel time for trains coming from South and Central India,” says Joseph Vattakavan, Senior Coordinator (Tiger Conservation), World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India. Joseph has brought out a report on the implications of the broadening of this railway line and other highways that pierce through this corridor. 

According to Joseph, another major threat to the dispersal of wild animals is the Balaghat-Nainpur highway that runs alongside the railway line. “Imagine, next to the speeding trains there is a state highway that runs parallel for more than one-third of the total distance. Even if the animals manage to cross the railway track, they have to then confront the speeding vehicles,” adds Joseph. 

Another major highwaynear Pench — NH-7 — dissects the corridor near the Rukhad forest patch and has been responsible for many animal deaths in the past. This patch has Pench Tiger Reserve to its right and the Seoni territorial forest division on the left, and it is from there that the corridor to Kanha starts. There is a proposal to turn this road to a four-lane highway, but it has not been sanctioned yet. However, the possibility of its widening in the future cannot be ruled out. 

In his report,Fragmentation Threat in the Kanha Pench Corridor, Joseph writes, “The biotic pressure of the road was also seen to extend more than 1km into the forest on either side. Moreover, several animals are being killed daily, run over by speeding traffic. A total of 1,035 road kills were recorded on the 9.2km stretch of the road passing through Pench Tiger Reserve in 430 days of observation, despite having underpasses for animal movement.” 

Additionally, most of the roads in the nearby areas have been turned from single-lane to double-lane, leading to increasing conflict. To mitigate the conflict, the government has built underpasses on NH-7, but the camera traps and pressure-impression pads set up to ascertain animal presence have found no sign of tigers or other wild animals using them. 

Chhitranjan Dave, Senior Project Officer, WWF-India, says these development projects would ultimately get clearance as there is lot of political pressure — people want roads to be widened, railway lines to be turned into broad gauge, and mining projects to take off, and politicians make these promises to win elections. “Ministers have to get elected and they can’t go and ask tigers to vote for them. So we need measures with a perfect blend of development and environmental concerns,” he argues. He also cites the bureaucratic muddle as an impediment in implementing projects for the well-being of wild animals. “These forests and corridors fall in different states, whose governments have different development plans. If you manage to convince one state for something, the other would create some hurdles. It is difficult to work in such a politically charged atmosphere,” he rues. 

A recent survey by WWF-India and WII in May-June 2009 has proved that tigers and other wild animals still use this corridor for dispersing into adjacent forests. For his NTCA-supported PhD study at the WII (2004-09), Joseph radio-collared 10 tigers in Kanha to study their ecology and dispersal patterns. His report mentions how one of these radio-collared tigers came into conflict with the presence of people on the corridor. Unable to cope, the tiger had to somehow make its way back to Kanha, where he fell to another male tiger in a territorial fight. 

“A tiger passing through the corridor has to confront a range of threats such as hostile villagers, retaliatory poisoning for livestock kills, poaching of tigers and prey, electrocution by live wires, apart from road and rail traffic,” writes Joseph in his report. He even photographed a male tiger in the Rukhad patch adjoining Pench Tiger Reserve — probably the first photographic evidence of tigers moving across this area.       

There is a genuine consensus on the need to protect this crucial corridor. Once revived, it would be a huge boost for the tiger populations in the Central Indian landscape. Indeed, government agencies have woken up to the need for protecting these
crucial linkages. 

Let’s see if this awakening adds a whole new meaning to tiger conservation in India.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2011