Do Wildlife Corridors Need Protection?
Degradation of wildlife corridors and fragmentation of natural habitats on account of agriculture, human settlements, roads, mines, encroachments and other developmental activities, affect elephants and other species that use such forest corridors to migrate. Paramesha Mallegowda, a researcher from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), has been involved in research on wildlife corridors in the Mysore-Nilgiri corridor landscape of the Western Ghats for the past three years. He highlights of the role of such corridors in strengthening Protected Areas and mitigating man-animal conflict.
A multi-disciplinary approach is necessary to understand the ecological status of the fragmented forest matrix in the case of elephant corridors; it is critical that the level of human dependency and people’s conservation attitudes be assessed. Given that traditionally, elephants have been worshipped by Indians since ancient times, the recent trend of conflict can be alleviated if we are somehow able to give the animals space.
I started my study in February 2010 and wrapped up my field work two years later. My goal was to make an assessment that would help in developing strategies to improve elephant habitat and reduce human-wildlife conflict by restoring wildlife corridors at the Biligiri-Rangaswami Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary (recently declared as a tiger reserve). These corridors are part of the Mysore-Nilgiri Corridor landscape that connects BRT with the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and Eastern Ghats, where fragmentation has led to conflict.
Three corridors were identified in this landscape – Edeyarahalli-Doddasampige, Chamarajanagar-Talamalai at Punjur and Chamarajanagar-Talamalai at Mudalli. The first one links BRT with the Kollegal Reserve Forest, while the other two link BRT with Satyamangalam. In 2008, around 36 per cent of the Satyamangalam Reserve Forest was declared as a wildlife sanctuary and is now proposed as a tiger reserve. These landscapes are inhabited by tribal and non-tribal communities in 18 settlements, along with a mosaic of extensive farmlands. Communities are largely dependent on forests for fuelwood, fodder and only a few collect non-timber forest produce, due to the ban on NTFP collection in 2007. A few settlements also comprise Soliga tribals who were relocated from the interior pockets of BRT forests following the declaration of the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary in 1974. Such settlements, or podus, have 10 to 60 households. The Forest Department had banned these settlers from practicing shifting cultivation. Additionally, around 3,000 acres of forest land was cleared in 1974 to establish a refugee camp for Tibetian refugees in Dhondenling, in the Edeyarahalli-Doddasampige landscape. Likewise, thousands of acres of Punajanur forest land were cleared for settlers in 1960 in the southern Punajanur corridor to make way for farms. With the given heterogeneity of the villagers in these corridors, their level of forest dependency, and knowledge of managing natural resources and farming practices understandably varies. This, in turn, plays a major role in their attitude towards crop-raiding animals and corridor management.
Frequency of animal and human usage of corridors
Camera trap images of 10 species of large mammals were captured in 60 days in the three corridors. Chital (42.05 per cent) had the highest capture rate, followed by the Asian elephant (21.02 per cent), wild pig (13.07 per cent), barking deer (9.66 per cent), sambar (7.95 per cent), Indian gaur (3.41 per cent), and sloth bear (1.14 per cent). Carnivores such as the tiger, leopard and wild dog had the lowest capture rate (0.57 per cent). Apart from these, there were records of black-naped hares, Asian palm civets and jungle cats, along with cattle, goats and people.
We recorded either multi-stemmed vegetation with cut marks, or stumps lopped for fuelwood and fodder. We also encountered high dung density in the corridors, indicating heavy use by cattle and humans. Signs of the presence of wild animals (density and diversity) were better in the Punajanur and Mudalli corridors than the Doddasampige-Edeyarahalli corridor. And animals seemed to use the corridors more frequently in the monsoon than in summer. Our data analysis is still underway right now and we fully expect more interesting details to emerge.
Vehicular traffic survey
The National Highway (NH-209) between Chamarajanagar and Sathyamangalam and the Kollegal-Hasanur State Highway cut through these three corridors. Our 24-hour vehicular traffic survey revealed two vehicles per minute through the southern corridors that connected the BRT and Sathyamangalam tiger forests. In Edeyarahalli-Doddasampige, an average of one vehicle per 2.5 min. was recorded. Recently, these roads were widened and upgraded. We can now expect the possibility of increased road kills, an additional threat to wildlife movement in the corridor.
In India, though wildlife corridors are largely associated with elephants, these gentle giants are merely a flagship species, and protecting their movement paths will, in reality, benefit a slew of other species. We could see that the corridors were used by many other mammals but there has been no comprehensive study on seasonal wildlife migration and the effects of vehicular traffic, anthropogenic disturbances and land-use and land-cover changes around the corridor to enable an understanding of the impacts of fragmentation on wildlife migration. To get a fix on how to mitigate problems, we especially need to know much more about these and the social dimensions, especially the potential for community participation in protecting and conserving corridors.
The Wildlife Trust of India had identified 88 wildlife corridors throughout India and initiated a novel conservation approach to widen them by purchasing some private land holdings in forest fragments in 2007. The 25.5 acre Kollegal (Edayarhalli–Doddasampige) Elephant Corridor land under private ownership was purchased by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) supported by its partner – the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
In the BRT landscape, though the main corridors have been physically identified, we must now work to improve habitat quality. Hopefully, my study will help achieve this end and might also guide farmers and locals on ways to reduce human-wildlife conflict. In the process, I expect livelihood opportunities to increase and tensions between communities and the Forest Department to reduce. Hopefully, the Forest Department too will make use of the project document to consolidate the forest fragments. It is crucial that site-specific conservation plans be adopted for each corridor and that Forest Departments work with locals. The alternative would be to lose this vital biodiversity landscape to relentless degradation.
by Paramesha Mallegowda, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII No. 5, October 2012