How To Use A Road To Kill A Tiger Forest
June 2009: In its proffered quest to ‘connect’ India to the 21st century, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) continues to bulldoze through forested areas, unconcerned of the havoc it is wreaking on the country’s natural ecosystems. It refuses to understand that the proposed expansion of National Highway 7 connecting Nagpur to Jabalpur from a two-lane to a four/six lane highway on the periphery of the Pench Mowgli Sanctuary of the Pench Tiger Reserve can only be a death sentence on tigers. The proposed expansion traverses south Seoni and Nagpur Forest Divisions. Hundreds of wild animals are already lost to road accidents annually. Upgradation of this road by another 8.7 km. will permanently fragment the connection between the Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves and tragically impact the wildlife of the area.
The proposal, of course, has been doing the rounds for some time now. The Pench Tiger Reserve extends across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Maharashtra government gave its clearance to the project and recommended diverting 112.60 ha. of forest land that involved the cutting of 22,482 trees. However, the Madhya Pradesh government referred the matter to the Government of India as the area was part of a critical tiger habitat. The Wildlife Trust of India, which has been fighting the proposed extension for some time, submitted a petition in the Supreme Court highlighting the importance of the corridors for wildlife movement between Kanha and Pench. This was referred to the CEC, which then asked the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for its opinion. The NTCA constituted a committee to look into the proposal and subsequently confirmed its strong opposition to the road-widening proposal calling the move an ‘end of the tiger reserve’.
The report ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators and prey in India, 2008’ published by the Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority clearly states that the Kanha-Pench Landscape “is one of the best landscapes (16,000 sq. km.) that exists today with two source populations of tigers connected as a potential meta-population. The weakest connectivity for this landscape exists at the forested border of Seoni and Wara Seoni tehsils, which needs to be managed with restorative inputs on a priority basis. This would ensure the linkage between the source populations and foster meta population existence.” The Kanha-Pench landscape, the report says, has a tiger occupancy of 3,880 sq. km. with an estimated population of 121 tigers.
Connecting corridors help maintain the genetic diversity of wildlife. The expansion of the highway will cause permanent changes in movement patterns and behaviour of animals. Widening of the road will increase vehicle frequency and inhibit wildlife movement, change home ranges, isolate populations and alter population dynamics. The construction process itself will cause a great deal of disturbance. The existing two lane NH-7 highway has already affected wildlife in the form of air and noise pollution and oil spills. The MP Forest Department records show 91 cases of roadkills between 1996 and 2006.
While in some cases, the construction of bridges, culverts and under passes is beneficial, here it will completely break the habitat contiguity and have a devastating impact on wildlife. The NTCA has opposed NHAI’s plan to build an underpass saying that the mitigation measures suggested are impractical. The NHAI, in turn, has accused Dr. Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary of NTCA, of misleading the CEC and to prove his statement that the NHAI has violated the Forest Conservation Act. It also said that work of widening the north-south corridor had been undertaken after environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and other relevant bodies, and that the tree felling stretch did not attract provisions of the FCA. On May 22, experts including Dr. Ullas Karanth voiced their strong protest against the extension at a meeting convened by the CEC.
The critical tiger habitat in the Pench Tiger Reserve is already limited and further fragmentation and reduction that will be the result of construction and road widening is not acceptable. Improved access will also facilitate more people to enter these forests for exploitation of resources.
Meanwhile, the NHAI has already commenced the road widening. The dumping of debris along the road side has been seen on the NH-7 in the reserve forest area near Boda Nala.
The NTCA and WTI have suggested viable alternate road alignments for NH-7 that connects Nagpur to Jabalpur via Chindwara and Seoni, where a state highway already exists and only needs to be upgraded.
Write to the MoEF, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh and young leaders such as Rahul Gandhi:
1. The proposed extension will entail large scale tree felling – nearly 22,500 in Maharashtra alone – which will cause irreversible damage to the habitat.
2. The Kanha – Pench landscape is extremely important for tiger conservation. The highway will severe crucial corridors which connect the source tiger population of Kanha to other meta populations in Pench, and beyond.
3. Ask the NHAI to opt for the proposed alternate road alignment or any other that does not pose a threat to wildlife.
Ministry of Environment and Forests,
Government of India,
Paryavaran Bhawan, CGO Complex,
Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003.
Chief Wildlife Warden,
Government of Madhya Pradesh,
Van Bhavan,1st Floor,
Bhopal – 462 003.
New Delhi – 110001.
Fax: (011) 23018550