Driven To Protect – A Journey Across India To Document Wild Roadkills
The PATH (Provide Animals Safe Transit on Highways ) team travelled through more than 30 wildlife sanctuaries in 22 states, moving from sea level to altitudes of more than 3000 m. above sea level, with temperatures ranging from -100C to 450C as part of an all India awareness expedition on roadkills.
It’s a misty morning. People have assembled at the century-old building, which has seen the rise of great wildlife managers in its sprawling 195 acre forest campus. There is a car parked outside the building, boasting decals of various organisations and brands. What’s the occasion? The flag off of an all India awareness expedition on roadkills named PATH, an acronym for Provide Animals Safe Transit on Highways. Through a flight of stairs into the air conditioned hall, people are seated to listen to wildlife specialists speak on the topic, a sensitisation workshop, aptly named ‘A Road Blocking the Way’ is scheduled to begin in minutes. The dignitaries on the dais are Dr. Rajeev K Sreevatsava, I.F.S., Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Director of this century old institution, the Tamil Nadu Forest Academy, Coimbatore, I. Anwardeen, I.F.S., Conservator of Forests, Coimbatore Circle, Dr. Ajay Desai, Co-chair, Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Dr. Sundararaman, wildlife enthusiast and Executive Director of Shivatex, and R. Mohammed Saleem, President, Environment Conservation Group. This moment on February 8, 2016, will be remembered by all those who have gathered as the start of the PATH expedition.The beginning of a journey that will take five wildlife enthusiasts across 17,000 km., through 22 states, on a mission to bring a spotlight on roadkills in India. The team members include V. Saanthakumar, P. Velmurgan, H. Byju and C.V. Prasath, lead by R. Mohammed Saleem.
Through the course of the expedition, the PATH team travelled through more than 30 wildlife sanctuaries in 22 states, moving from sea level to altitudes of more than 3000 m. above sea level, with temperatures ranging from -100C to 450C. The vehicle, filled with luggage, food, water, sleeping bags, tents and medicines, was well equipped to face all odds. The PATH team came across at least three roadkills every day. They only recorded the wild ones though.
Often, it was difficult to differentiate between a wild and domestic animal as the bodies were badly mangled. In one instance, the team thought that the squashed body of a feline on the road was a domestic cat, but on second glance, they realised it was a jungle cat. Similarly, what looked like run-over dogs from a distance, turned out to be jackals and foxes on closer examination. As soon as a roadkill was spotted, two members with reflective jackets on would stand on either side of the roadkill to alert oncoming vehicles. Velmurgan, an experienced cinematographer who was in charge of documentation, would then safely take still and video recording of the kill, while Saleem would note down the GPS coordinates and other related data. Mitigation methods like signage alerting vehicles to wildlife crossings were also documented. Roadkills ranged from snakes to bigger mammals like jackals. Dead birds were commonly found near dumping grounds and wetlands, and both birds and mammals that come to scavenge on roadkill sometimes became roadkill themselves. What they saw were not just dead animals, but also animals which were injured or permanently maimed, including innumerable monkeys having lost a limb or two. People throw food on the road with the intention of feeding the monkeys, unaware that the food they have thrown can lead to injury or prove fatal. As they drove on, they made it a point to stop and sensitize people feeding wild animals.
Vehicles passing through wilderness areas spread air, sound, and light pollution. Wild animals have not just lost their land to the highways, but forest areas that surround these are fast turning unfit as habitats due to these disturbances. The smell of fossil fuel in the air has destroyed the freshness of the forest. The lives of animals and insects that depend on smell for mating are at stake. Roads have made it easier for poachers to enter into forest areas that were once hard to access. Beedi and cigarette butts that are carelessly discarded on these highways are the cause for many wild fires. Forests that used to play a significant role in maintaining the water balance are now dry and devoid of wildlife. New roads laid in the forest have made it easier to encroach upon forestland. Animals that once fed in these rich landscapes now have to turn to human habitat for food, leading to human-animal conflict. The current government’s lack of political will to save the forest is very much visible.
The team’s journey was tedious, travelling through jungles, mountains, riverbeds, and streams. Their electronic gadgets needed to be charged continuously as they were on the move for more than 16 hours every day, with just enough time at night to stretch their legs and rest. During the day, most of the team members were busy driving, documenting, navigating, communicating or transferring data from the gadgets on to the hard disk. At times, driving off the road or over a pothole would disconnect the charging devices only for them to discover hours later that the charger had disconnected. The road tax collection tolls at various points were irksome as they had to pay taxes to travel on roads, which in most places were not properly maintained. They had to pay thousands of rupees just as toll charges on roads. With all these funds the government could very well construct underpasses for wildlife at vulnerable areas that would save human and wild lives. Their entry and accommodation at various forests was made easy with recommendation letters from Dr. Durairasu, IFS, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF), and I.Anwardeeen, IFS, Conservator of forests, Coimbatore circle.
Through the 44-day long expedition, the mission of the team was to spread awareness and document roadkill. Some of the institutions visited by the team were Metro Matriculation Higher Secondary school – Mettupalayam, Nanda College- Erode, American College- Madurai, National Academy Higher secondary school – Ramnad, Rishi Gurukulam – Vishakhapatnam, Inspiria Knowledge centre – Bhubaneswar, IIT Guwahati, Jammu University and University of Calicut. Awareness was also spread among truck drivers at dhabas and discussions were held with forest officers. Readymade posters were handed over during such sessions. Some of the accommodation and events at institutions were made possible by a network of people on social media and the team presented them a memento in appreciation of their support.
PATH’s mission is to continue to spread more awareness and garner contributions from the public through citizen science programmes. The public can contribute by sending in their roadkill findings. The data can be sharedthrough the website (https://www.ecgwild.org/path) or through their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ECGPATH/. The PATH expedition was made possible through generous contributions and support from Sakthi Infra Tex -Erode, WULF, HP Indigo, Sanctuary Asia, Tamil Nadu Forest Department, MapmyIndia and Apollo Tyres.
Author: R. Mohammed Saleem.