Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis takes the reader into the wild, literally so.
It may be the national animal but the tiger sadly needs roaring campaigns to save the last few of its tribe left. Elephants in all their mammoth glory may have paraded the royalty but are now often found loitering on highways much to the displeasure of those driving past. And given the growth versus groves debate, with most developmental work being undertaken at the merciless cost of a declining forest cover, wildlife is certainly vanishing.
This crisis is what author Prerna Singh Bindra tries to address. Does development always come at the collateral damage of environmental destruction? The author while discussing these issues also talks of various interesting characteristics of animals and life in the woods.
In one of her travels the author visits the Panna Tiger Reserve , where the a debated Ken-Betwa river link is likely to submerge the reserve’s pristine forests. Here is an excerpt from the book, in which the author discusses the sinking of these forests that are hosts to the endangered national animal.
Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh
At Ground Zero, in Panna Tiger Reserve, the mood was sombre; the upcoming river link is a dark shadow that stalked my visit—every beloved site I saw, animal I observed, vista I drank in—river, valley, gorge, grassland—appeared to have its days numbered. My anxiety was mirrored, manifold, in the eyes of the forest staff by my side. They have clocked innumerable hours—days and nights—to protect this reserve and its tigers; they have taken on poachers, timber smugglers, graziers. They have calmed irate villagers and faced their wrath when ‘their’ tigers preyed on livestock. Human–tiger conflict situations are understandably tense, and usually villagers, fatigued and frustrated by the losses, vent their ire on foresters who are the custodians of the forest, and its wildlife.
Now, though, the forest staff found themselves out of their depth. The plan to dam and draw water from the river Ken that meanders through their forest—and their villages (most of the staff is from these parts)—is incomprehensible to them, and ‘terrifying’.
It is bigger than them, beyond their grasp. Briefly, both the Ken and Betwa start their journey from the Vindhya mountain range, and meander northward, through Madhya Pradesh to ultimately merge in the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh.
The Ken–Betwa project aims to irrigate over six lakh hectares across five districts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, provide drinking water to over 1,00,000 people and generate 78 MW of power. Six hundred and sixty million cubic metres of water will be drawn from the Ken river in Madhya Pradesh and channelled through a 220-km-long canal into the Betwa river. This will necessitate building the Daudhan Dam in the heart of Panna, affecting no less than 28 per cent of the reserve’s core critical tiger habitat.
Red paint was slashed over ancient Vindhyan sandstone, at Sundighat in the Ken Valley, where we spotted many rare, endangered vultures roosting in the nooks of the sheer cliffs. The paint indicated the alignment of the over-2-km-long and 77-metre high Daudhan Dam that will be built on the Ken.
The red is also an indicator of the death of the river Ken, of the forest it feeds and the life it nurtures. It occurred to me that the tigress I saw the day before—T6 (Tiger 6)—that beautiful, powerful, ethereal being, should have been splashed by a spot of red too, marring her ochre and black stripes. For the waters will swallow her as well. She is the collateral damage of the Ken–Betwa river link. She, and the other dozen odd tigers, that reside in the submergence area.
And the vultures that we saw: nesting, roosting, diving, gliding, soaring, flying. They are doomed too. Vulture populations in India have, in fact, plummeted by over 97 per cent in a matter of about ten to fifteen years. However, the minister for water resources has assured us that the vultures will be safe, reasoning that ‘97 per cent of the vulture nests are above the maximum water level’.
It doesn’t quite work that way. Here’s why.
The Ken is one of our most spectacular rivers, meandering through a 30-km-long gorge amidst sheer rocky cliffs. These cliffs provide an ideal nesting habitat for five species of vultures including the critically endangered long-billed Gyps indicus and the red-headed Sarcogyps calvus besides the rare Egyptian vulture, Neophron percnopterus.
The Daudhan Dam will submerge this entire length of gorge, destroying the unique habitat of more than a thousand of these highly endangered avian creatures and submerging 400-odd live nests.
While a few vulture nests may well be above the submergence line, it is foolhardy to assume, therefore, that the birds will survive. Vultures are one of the avian world’s best fliers. They don’t beat their wings to fly but glide with the wind, sometimes for as far as 100 km or more. They need heights to launch themselves and take advantage of the updraught produced when the wind blows over hills and ridges; or depths so that they can ride the thermals, which are rising columns of warm air. The gorge, and the rocky cliffs that line it, are therefore a perfect habitat for vultures.
With the construction of the Daudhan Dam a stagnant reservoir will replace a vibrant, living river. With the reservoir’s water lapping at their door, the vultures won’t be able to take flight, and will have to learn to flap their wings, in the manner of ducks, as they hop off and on their nests. The problem is, vultures can’t evolve into ducks, not even for the greater common good of the country, not even to spare honourable ministers the inconvenience of a hunger strike.
We have also been reassured about the national animal. In fact, the water ministry, the nodal ministry for executing the River Link Project, assures us that ‘the tiger population will increase, with the region getting more water’.
If it weren’t heartbreakingly tragic, it would be rip-roaringly funny.
Here is a summary of what the project will do to tigers:
The dam of the Ken–Betwa link, power house and a large part of the reservoir are almost entirely located within the Panna Tiger Reserve, directly submerging 89 sq km. Over 58 sq km is in the core critical tiger habitat, deemed inviolate and sacrosanct as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
The impact area will be far greater. Construction, quarrying, mining, blasting, staff colonies, etc. will drown, disembowel and dissect over 200 sq km of the reserve—and the wildlife within it. The reservoir will bifurcate the reserve. The shrunken, fractured landscape will not be able to host a viable population of tigers, who are territorial and wide-ranging.
Added to this is the impact of the construction, blasting, tunnelling, quarrying, and movement of men and machinery—all of which is expected to last for a decade.