Rapid pace of road building through forests and protected areas endangers animals and threatens ecology.

BY PRERNA SINGH BINDRA

The best thing you could do for the Amazon is to bomb all the roads.  —Eneas Salati

I crouched, almost flat on the ground, to take a wide-angle photograph of the snake, crushed under a vehicle on the road that cuts through the montane grasslands and tropical rainforests of Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka. That achieved, I went round the other way, grasping the snake by its tail to place it off the road and in the forest, in a bid to give it some dignity in death. That’s when it jerked, reared its head and swirled around.

It was a venomous snake—one of the few such species in India. A cobra. D.V. Girish—colleague, conservationist, friend—swiftly pushed my hand aside, whipped out his snake hook, and gently lifted the reptile. No use now, the cobra has gone limp, ebbed of life.

It felt like a kick in my gut, watching the snake die. I know many of my fellow men and women believe that snakes are better dead than alive. But, like most wild creatures, snakes will only attack when harassed, provoked or surprised. Left alone, they are largely harmless and rarely pose a threat to people. Besides, snakes occupy an important ecological niche as mid-level predators eating crop pests such as rats and mice. This cobra was my ninth dead snake of the day as we drove down NH 13 in Kudremukh. I was to list fifteen that morning (after which we lost count), and noted at least five species (a few were crushed beyond recognition). The stunning neon-green vine snake (three), rat snake (two), sand boa (one), bronze-back tree snake (three), cobra (two), and was that the rare, endemic pit viper? We saw other squashed creatures—notably, the beautiful southern bird-wing, the largest butterfly species in India.

***

The road through Kudremukh, part of the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot, is a virtual animal graveyard. Other mortalities over time include the lion-tailed macaque, one of the most endangered primates in the world, and endemic to these parts, besides the sambar deer, capped macaque, leopard, mouse deer, and even the world’s largest wild bovine, the Indian bison or gaur.

The problem, however, extends far beyond Kudremukh. Highways and roads criss-crossing wildlife reserves and  habitats—and speeding vehicles running over wild animals—are one of the main drivers of extinction, globally. Snakes, as well as other reptiles and amphibians, suffer the highest casualty rate, but are by no means the only victims. The big and the beautiful are easy prey too. A cursory glance at news reports showed that a tiger, a leopard, an elephant and two sloth bears had been mowed down by vehicles speeding across roads running through the forests in about sixty days between May–July 2016. A friend travelling to Nainital in Uttarakhand called in distress from the site of a hit-and-run. The photograph he mailed me depicted a disembowelled langur and two red foxes. The langur had likely been run over, and the foxes—a vixen and her pup—had moved in to scavenge on what was to be their last supper. This tragedy took place on the Nainital–Kaladhungi road, a quaint bridle path half-a-century ago, and frequently used by legendary hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett. When Corbett was a young boy he used to go back and forth on this path from his family’s summer home in Nainital, a picturesque hill station, to their winter home, Kaladhungi in the foothills.

***

Vehicles are voracious predators, taking a huge toll on wildlife, globally. The Centro Brasileiro de Ecologia de Estradas estimated in 2014 that every year about 475 million animals die in Brazil as victims of roadkill. There are no such comprehensive studies in India, but the following should give you an idea of the scale: The Haridwar–Najibabad road skirts Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, cleaving through the contiguous stretch of adjoining forests that form the park’s buffer zone. Following the death of a tiger—crushed by a speeding truck—wildlife researchers walked the road for a week in July 2016 between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. each day. The sum of fatalities they observed in that week included leopard, cheetal, yellow-throated marten, python, king cobra; and “we are not even listing the many smaller creatures: snakes, frogs, birds, insects”, said one of the researchers.

In most cases all that the animal was trying to do—like the proverbial chicken—was cross the road, when it was helplessly confronted with a monstrous piece of metal hurtling into its path. My colleagues and I have stood by a state highway that skirted a reserve one evening through to midnight, in an attempt to see which animals crossed the road, and how. We observed a herd of sambar trying to make their way across. Every time the deer plucked up the courage to walk across; its ears would perk up, and hearing a distant vehicle, it would scuttle back in alarm. It was a good forty minutes before they eventually succeeded. Animals are not programmed to match the speed, nor do they have the dexterity to escape an oncoming vehicle. Most freeze and are easy prey.

Unnatural selection by automobile is a recent phenomenon. Animals have adapted over millennia to deal with adversity and evade predators. Cuttlefish and stick insects use camouflage, changing colour and texture to blend in perfectly while sea cucumbers can solidify into lumps or turn to mush to merge with their surroundings. Animals play dead, release toxic chemicals, distract predator attention by breaking off bits of their body, group together to mob a predator or develop powerful speeds. Nature is yet to equip its creatures to match the swift evolution of the predator of the twenty-first century, the automobile, which developed merely three–four generations ago.

I sometimes wonder if even Homo sapiens have evolved sufficiently to deal with this mechanical beast that rages across rapidly expanding roadways. Science and statistics seem to think not: in India 1.46 lakh people lost their lives in road accidents in just one year (2015). While researching I came across “Mr Graham”, a rather disquieting visual representation of how a human body would have to evolve to survive a car crash. As part of a road safety awareness drive, Australia’s Transport Accident Commission partnered with researchers and trauma surgeons to develop “Mr Graham”. With his helmet-like skull, bulbous head, airbags between each rib and loads of fatty tissue to protect delicate bones, Mr Graham cuts a grotesque figure, and while he would “find it difficult to get himself a date”, he would certainly survive a car crash!

Automobiles and the roads they require have moulded landscapes across the world: The ecological consequences go beyond the visible impact of tragic accidents that crush rare wild creatures. There are other, less obvious but equally lethal, fallouts of roads that run through forests. So much so that “Road Ecology” has become a separate discipline under conservation biology, the focus of which is to fully comprehend the plethora of threats and arrive at appropriate solutions.

One implication is greater access—roads bring in settlers, developers, hunters. In the Congo Basin, logging roads opened up vast areas for what can only be called a “poaching epidemic”. In about a decade more than 60 per cent of the region’s forest elephant population was wiped out. In the Russian Far East, studies linked roads and tiger mortality. From 1992 to 2000, the Wildlife Conservation Society studied the fate of radio-collared Siberian tigers living in areas with no roads, secondary roads and primary roads; and found that the survival rate of adult tigers living in areas with roads was about half of those living in undisturbed forests.

The advent of a road marks the death of wilderness. Roads are agents of change, transforming landscapes where they go. They function as arteries, carrying growth and enabling development into hitherto remote and untouched parts of the world. Their impacts are both inspirational and distressing. If they usher in economic growth, they also erode cultures and devastate environments.

When a road opens up an area, it serves as an ancillary to further development, increasing the human footprint. The first paved highway across the Brazilian Amazon in the 1970s connected the 1,200-mile distance between the northern port city of Belém and the capital, Brasília, and was hailed for spurring rapid development in the region. The highway led to the growth of a network of smaller roads and the birth of new towns and industries. However, the ecological costs were monumental. Pristine rainforests were destroyed, “swaths of deforestation some two hundred and fifty miles wide, stretching from horizon to horizon” and replaced by pasturelands, cattle ranches, towns and industry.

In India too, there are many similar examples. A significant one is the making of the Mughal Road—and the unmaking of the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary (in Kashmir), through which it cuts. The historical mountainous track was used in 1586 by Emperor Akbar to enter the Kashmir Valley from Lahore, and was used similarly by subsequent Mughal rulers. In recent memory, it was a scenic kuccha path, winding its way through fir and alpine meadows, hugging the majestic Pir Panjal range. In 2007, construction began to upgrade the road for a supplementary connection between Srinagar and Jammu. For months and years, till 2013, the mountains echoed with the sound of exploding dynamite while tonnes of debris rolled down and turned lush meadows into sterile hills of rubble.

The zippy new Mughal Road proved fatal to the wild, rare goat emblematic of the mountains, the Pir Panjal markhor. The blasts caused continuous soil erosion that devastated critical markhor habitat. Once not uncommonly visible along the trail, they have retreated, from habitats that are no longer havens, to places unknown, but likely with equally fragile futures.

Only 250–300 of the Pir Panjal markhor are estimated to now survive in small fragmented populations, and the Hirpora Sanctuary is one of its last refuges.

Mountain roads carry other risks: severe deforestation, erosion and landslides. They can accelerate the devastation caused by natural disasters, and the losses can be colossal, as during the floods and landslides in Uttarakhand in 2013 and Ladakh in 2010. Over half of the landslides studied following the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 in which thousands lost their lives, were linked to human activity. Construction of roads was the most common cause of landslides as they steepen the slope angle.

The Mughal Road is now a hectic thoroughfare, with a constant rumble of trucks and tourists, and with ambitions to be a national highway. The stretch where the road crests the once-pristine “Pir ki Gali” is a typical tourist “viewpoint” now, featuring a cluster of dhabas and sundry shops, littered with empty packets of chips and fizzy drink bottles, and such other remains of visitors’ gluttony. Worse, it has opened the floodgates for graziers who now arrive by the truckful with their livestock as soon as the snows melt. This is a critical time for the markhor, who have survived the cold season when grass is thin on the ground. In winter, the males expend their energies rutting, seeking and fighting with other males for a mate; the females get pregnant as the snow melts—so that they can take advantage of the first flush of the protein-rich grass.

But the graziers with their huge herds flock the meadows, leaving no feeding grounds for the markhor… who may simply starve to death. Markhor are hardy animals, surviving the harshest of winters; they are the most agile of wild goats. It is doubtful, though, they will survive the Mughal Road. In the past decade, numbers in Hirpora have halved to about thirty. Experts fear that the markhor may become extinct in the sanctuary.

***

Roads have sliced almost the entire land surface of the earth into no less than 6,00,000 pieces, half of which are less than 1 sq km in size. Such fragmentation causes havoc to natural habitats. Roads splinter landscapes, making tiny, dysfunctional fragments of a thriving ecosystem. They cut off well-worn migratory paths of wild species, caging them into small forest patches, making them more vulnerable to localized extinctions. Such isolated patches decay faster.

The spillover effects of roads are visible on either side—thinning, dying trees, sliced vegetation, intrusion of invasive species, retreat of wildlife. Biologists call this the “Edge Effect”. The expansion of NH 7 into a four-lane highway is creating such an “edge” in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve. In itself Pench’s 411 sq. km is inadequate for a viable tiger population, but it is connected to the more sizeable Kanha Tiger Reserve through a living corridor. The reserves and other forests form part of the Central Indian landscape—considered the largest tiger landscape in India—which has a network of protected areas linked through increasingly fragile corridors. This landscape is crucial to the future of the tiger in India. If wild tigers are to survive in the long term, this is one of the few places they will flourish.

The Kanha–Pench landscape supports over 200 tigers as per the 2014 all-India estimate, and they thrive here because of its contiguity. But the expansion of NH7 (and other activities, like a railway line running parallel to the highway) will irrevocably break this vast landscape. Increasing fragmentation will shatter the connectivity with small tiger populations in isolated reserves facing the risk of local extinction—in the short term due to poaching, and genetic decay over generations in the long term. The logical end of such splintering of habitat is the local extinction of tigers.

I am haunted by the story of a Hoolock gibbon, India’s only ape, forced aground by a road that had slashed the canopy cover of a lush evergreen forest of the North-east. The hoolock is a highly specialized arboreal creature using its long, agile arms to glide along tree branches. It is not adapted to walk. In the natural order of things, they would not be found on the ground. Yet, I encountered a troop— nervous, unsure, awkwardly scrambling to scurry across the road and forage for food… a far cry from the beautiful, agile acrobat of the canopy.

***

Roads are vital infrastructure, “engines of growth” that facilitate development of a region. They propel the economy and connect hitherto inaccessible villages and communities to health and educational facilities, markets, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. In India, where over 30 per cent of villages are not linked by all-weather roads, this need is vital. Conversely, it is argued that roads, may “drain out wealth” of remote regions by wheeling out natural resources. For India’s colonizers, it was a priority to build an extensive rail and road system in the interiors to accumulate cheap timber. Today roads are cut into remote forests (in Odisha and Jharkhand, for instance) to transport coal and iron ore, where minefields are rapidly coming up.

But, as much as the country needs growth it also needs forests and other natural habitats, given their value as ecosystems and the local livelihoods they sustain. Sometimes, ecological concerns must take precedence. What if the construction of a road were to lead to the death of a species, doom a tiger population, cement a wetland or murder a mountain?

This was the dilemma we faced as members of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) when the proposal for the Gaduli–Santalpur road was placed before us for clearance in June 2012. The proposed road would pass through the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary in the Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. The sanctuary harbours a number of endangered species such as the wild ass, Indian wolf, caracal, houbara bustard, desert fox, desert cat, etc. It also serves as a critical passage for migratory birds from across the globe. What caused us the greatest concern was the breeding site of flamingos in the sanctuary—the only one in the Indian subcontinent. For greater flamingos it is the only known nesting site in all of South Asia. The sanctuary was, in fact, created to secure this site. It was India’s legendary “Bird Man”, the late Sálim Ali, who gave the nesting site its popular nomenclature “Flamingo City” in 1945 when he estimated the flamingo population here to be no less than half a million. The “City” is the source, from where the flamingos fly off every winter across the subcontinent, to wetlands like Chilika (Odisha), Pulicat (Tamil Nadu) and Sewri (Mumbai) and back to nest and breed, raise and ready their young, who then take wing, and continue the cycle of life.

There is a reason this site is favoured by the bird. The waters here are a unique cocktail of fresh water that flows in from the river Luni and saline water of the Arabian Sea, providing a rich flow of nutrients in which microorganisms, crustaceans, algae and fish thrive—making a perfect feeding, and breeding ground for flamingos. Road construction will have a grave impact on the water regime here. This problem is further compounded as the region is heavily silted, requiring embankments and guard walls, causing artificial impounding of water on both sides of the proposed road. This will upset the region’s hydrology, and the food chain dependent on it.

The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF)-appointed expert committee that visited the site gave a nuanced report. It gave alternative alignments with less ecological implications for certain sections of the road. This involved upgrading an already existing road which would be more cost-effective, easier to make and accessible through the year unlike the one proposed.  Certain sections of the proposed road were rejected, given their likely impact on Flamingo City.

The committee warned: “It (the proposed road) would result in all probability in the abandonment of this breeding site, and India will thus lose the only breeding site of the flamingos which in turn could spell doom to the population of these birds in the Indian subcontinent.”

The standing committee’s stance was unequivocal against recommending the road. Still, the proposal was tabled repeatedly. Perhaps “saving some birds” was viewed as unreasonable, especially in the face of the fact that it was a strategic road. The stated purpose was to provide greater access to Border Security Force posts guarding the Indo-Pakistan border, as the Rann runs into Sindh province in Pakistan, as well as internal security due to illicit activities in the border areas.

The defence argument wears thin, a member of the expert committee pointed out, explaining that the proposed road is a good 50 km from the border, and would still need feeder roads to reach the posts. A certain ecological disaster, it does not make economic sense, either. The region remains inundated for about seven to eight months, and hence would be inaccessible. For the rest of the year, the entire flat expanse of the Rann is a road, and you could drive a sturdy vehicle anywhere! Besides, there is an existing alternative road network, though longer, that can be extended and strengthened.

So what drove the construction of this road? The proposal coincided with the government’s push to sell the “white desert” of the Rann as a major tourism attraction. Some press reports framed the NBWL concerns regarding the road as a “stumbling block and hurdle” in the government’s efforts to develop tourism along the road.

On 22 July 2014, a new NBWL was constituted, and the proposal was part of the agenda for its first meeting on 12–13 August 2014. It was given the go-ahead. There was no additional insight, field visit, information or study that might have tilted the decision in favour of construction of the road.

I do not know how many of you have seen flamingos in the wild (if not, go now). I have yet to see a more exquisite bird. I looked up my notes and this is what they said, ‘Viewed from a distance in the Rann, the flamingos were a shimmer of pink in the far horizon; closer, they seemed like long-legged ballerinas, their graceful curved necks buried in the water, occasionally lifting their heads and spreading their wings wide to perform a tight, tiny ballet. So utterly beautiful and graceful that even science takes a bow, calling them Phoenicopterus roseus (and P. minor), “crimson water nymphs”.’

I cannot fathom the deliberate choice of a project that would erase the flamingo off India’s landscape, even though a perfectly viable, ecologically safe option was available. It’s not just about “saving birds”, or whatever rare wildlife stands threatened—destroying an ecosystem has far wider, graver consequences.

What comes to mind is the proposed road to connect Aritar in Sikkim with Khunia More in West Bengal, which would run through Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary (Sikkim), Neora Valley National Park (West Bengal), as well as two crucial elephant corridors. The unkindest cut would be the 15-km stretch through the Neora Valley. The road would straddle high ridges, tearing down Himalayan temperate forests and habitats of rare species like the red panda, marbled cat, takin, pheasants and tragopans. Its route would take it to Jorepokhri, the source of the Neora river. The blasting and construction would destroy the catchment and the natural water systems that feed the towns of Kalimpong and Algarah, and a number of villages downstream.

Fortunately, at the time of writing, this proposal has been shelved, and the Neora Valley and its river, live on.

***

The scale of the problem is imposing, and clearly set to accelerate. India’s road network of 4.42 million km is one of the largest in the world, second only to the US. However, in terms of population, India has only 4 km of road per 1,000 people. Already a priority, the roads and highway sector is set for an aggressive expansion. The financial outlay for 2016–17 was enhanced by around 24 per cent to construct an additional 10,000 km—more than a twofold jump compared to the previous year—and upgrade 50,000 km of state highways into national highways. Many of these would spread ribbon-like into forests, wetlands, sanctuaries.

To facilitate this rapid growth, rules and regulations that govern roads, indeed all linear intrusions like railways, power lines, etc., have been relaxed more in the past few years, based on the perception that environment norms are slowing down such projects. The consent of affected village bodies (gram sabhas) was done away with in 2013 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which was in power. About a year later, the new government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), ushered in a major relaxation of rules for faster execution of roads. Tree-cutting, construction, etc. could now start after getting an in-principle approval from local authorities such as district forest officers, whereas earlier it needed to go through the rigour of a forest clearance process as mandated by law.

In 2015, the environment ministry announced its intention of creating a standard policy for all roads and other linear projects like railway lines. Such a general approval scheme would also apply to all road projects within 100 km of the Line of Actual Control (the “border” between Indian-held lands and Chinese-controlled territory, spanning the northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and the northeastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh) and in areas affected by left-wing extremism (LWE) and militancy. Reportedly, there are plans to include all international borders as well.

Border areas are the wild’s final frontier, their very remoteness offering refuge to a variety of endangered flora and fauna—from flamingos in the marshy deserts of Kutch, to snow leopards in the Himalayas, and India’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon, which inhabits the rainforest of the North-east. The central-eastern belt of the country, which is affected by the LWE, is rich tiger and elephant habitat. Such a one-size-fits-all approach is ludicrous—roads impact different ecosystems and diverse wildlife differently. A general clearance to all without considering individual species, ecosystems and project-specific needs is nothing short of disastrous.

The road ahead looks bleak. Yet, it need not be. There are ways to avoid or at least reduce the carnage, to allow animals the right of passage. One simple engineering quick fix is to have speed regulations in wildlife-rich areas and to properly deploy speed breakers. This has worked remarkably well in Zanzibar, where strategically placed speed bumps on a road through a forest reduced the deaths of the endangered red colobus monkeys by over 80 per cent.

A sensible question that could be posed at this point is: Do animals actually use infrastructure that humans design for them? This point was deliberated at a meeting to discuss mitigation measures for the expansion of a National Highway cutting through Rajaji National Park, and the crucial Chilla–Motichur elephant corridor. The director of the Wildlife Institute of India was asked to weigh in with his expert opinion on whether elephants would use overpasses. “Well,” said the director,  “we’ll need to ask the elephants!”

He has a point.

The decision to construct roads cannot be driven merely by economic targets and gains but must include, at the planning stage, a deeper understanding of the landscapes they penetrate and sensitivity towards the species that share our planet. In 2014, Nature magazine, published a global map that pinpointed areas with high ecological value that must remain roadless, and those where benefits to human beings in terms of agricultural development, employment, etc. come with relatively little environmental harm, and vice versa. A similar exercise should be undertaken for India, which should form the basis on which road infrastructure is planned.

A MoEF-appointed expert committee, of which I was part, issued comprehensive guidelines to this effect in 2013. The committee was constituted in response to the numerous proposals before the NBWL seeking approvals for construction of new roads, and expansion of existing ones within sanctuaries—making it a top threat to wildlife.

The committee called for a ban on new roads, expansions and upgradations (from kuccha fair-weather roads to black-topped ones) in Protected Areas and 1 km around them to provide a buffer. The thumb rule for Protected Areas and pristine natural habitats was to avoid new roads, and seek alternative routes. While the ministry accepted these guidelines, there is nothing to show it has been put into practice—as road after road is being granted approval inside reserves.

Animals need respite. Night is when animals move the most, and when most fatalities take place: a night ban on vehicles is advised. This is currently in place on the highway that passes through Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka and links the state to Kerala. But it must be said that the ban was hard-won, and keeping it in place a constant battle. This single initiative gives the animals great relief, and room for movement. The case of Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan is a salutary one. It showcases the complexity surrounding roads in forests and conservation—and that solutions can be arrived at, if there is a will to do so.

I visited Sariska in 2008, when tigers were flown in from Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, also in Rajasthan. This was part of a programme to rebuild the reserve after the local extinction of the tiger in 2005. I was there again a year later. Both times I was witness to massive dharnas—demonstrations, though not always peaceful— protesting the closure of a state highway that cuts through the core of the reserve. The highway connects state capital Jaipur to Alwar city, and is a very busy one, particularly at night when thousands of trucks ply the road. One of the conditions for the reintroduction of tigers in Sariska was that the highway be closed to traffic (a Supreme Court order was passed to this effect in 2009).

Consequently, the alternative route was repaired and widened. Not to the satisfaction of the local inhabitants, though, as it meant an extra 12 km of travel. Their main contention however, was that the alternate road did not connect Thanagazi, a town that bordered Sariska. This would dent their livelihood. The mainstay of this small town is animal husbandry, and the locals need swift connectivity to market their dairy products. The government assured a new road would be built to connect Thanagazi. But making new roads is a slow process—and the agitations continued, at times taking an ugly turn. Forest officials were heckled—a range forest officer and his staff were beaten up by a mob of over 5,000 people, while Park Director R.S. Shekhawat barely managed to escape unharmed. It was the director who had led the effort to shut the highway, refusing to be cowed by local political pressures and the wrath of the people. One of the demands the agitators sought was his immediate transfer!

Meanwhile, the new road connecting Thanagazi was constructed thus giving the villagers the much-needed connectivity from their town to both Alwar and Jaipur. In my most recent visit in November 2016, the state highway was shut to commercial traffic, a precursor to gradually closing it down. With a lighter traffic load, especially at night, tigers have taken over—at least three are known to use the area.

I missed meeting one. As we entered the reserve, fresh pug marks showed that the big cat had been on the move. The tiger finally had right of way.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservation journalist. She is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.

Edited excerpts from  The Vanishing: India’s wildlife crisis by Prerna Singh Bindra, published by Penguin Random House (2017)

 

 

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