If a national highway goes through a forest reserve, it would endanger the species living inside.
This obvious fact seems lost on certain groups in Kerala and now they have the support of the Wayanad MP, Rahul Gandhi.
Bandipur is one of the premier tiger reserves in the country. Located in present-day Karnataka, south of Mysore (Mysuru), near the Kerala border, it was once the Mysore maharaja’s private hunting reserve.
National Highway 766 (earlier 212) passes through this reserve forest. The reserve park and its inhabitants have paid quite a heavy price for letting humans have their way quite literally.
It was only after a ban on vehicular movement at night was imposed in June 2009 that there was a reduction in the death of wild animals in the stretch. As per BTR statistics, the pre-ban death count of wildlife between 2004-2009 was 93, while the count has drastically come down to 34 between 2010 and 2018.
But the night-time ban is being regarded as an ‘inconvenience’ to those travelling an extra 30 kilometres on an alternate route, which is less than the distance most Bangaloreans travel to reach the airport.
Representatives from former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s constituency, Wayanad, are calling it a major “hurdle” in connectivity that will “lead to a collapse of the economy of the hill district” of Wayanad.
Clearly, it is the voters over wildlife for the Wayanad MP, as he tweeted saying, “I stand in solidarity with the youth on an indefinite hunger strike since September 25th protesting against the daily 9-hour traffic ban on NH-766 that has caused immense hardship to lakhs of people in Kerala and Karnataka”.
Kerala insists on having the ban lifted. It questions the reasoning behind the ‘singling out’ of this stretch.
The central government refused to give in to Kerala’s demand to lift the night-time ban. Much to the disappointment of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s proposal for an elevated corridor passing through the reserve was turned down by the Union government on 26 September.
In a letter to Vijayan, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar informed the state that status quo will be maintained as was recommended by the committee of secretaries that had discussed the issue at length.
The letter also added that the ministry has also initiated “appropriate action through the National Tiger Conservation Authority” to file an affidavit about increasing the width and features of the alternative roads. This would enable complete closure of the road that goes through the reserve forest.
Karnataka, on its part, has stood its ground for the last 10 years in which it has shown no interest in wanting the ban lifted, although it has equal stakes in the issues being raised by Kerala. Karnataka Forest Minister C C Patil dismissed all rumours about Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa giving his consent for the lifting of the ban and has said that there is no question of the ban being lifted — “preserving wildlife of our reserved forest is foremost priority for us, no vested interests will be entertained in this regard”.
Wildlife activists on either side of the state border vouch for the ban. Forest officers have also been against its lifting with many of them hinting that smuggling activities would receive an impetus if the ban were to be lifted.
But the NH-766 Transport Protection Action Committee, the one which spearheaded the agitation in Wayanad, is headed to take legal action against one of the two petitioners in the night ban case — the Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samiti. The samiti alleged that the agitation in Wayanad was funded by smuggling and hawala mafia.
As the four-week period that the apex court gave the Centre to respond to the former’s suggestion of shutting down the road through the forest permanently ended in the first week of October, wildlife conservationist Sanjay Gubbi, whose work in this direction has been widely appreciated, explains why it is important that wildlife is given priority.
Edited excerpts from a conversation
1. What is your take on the lifting of the night traffic ban in Bandipur?
Places like Bandipur Tiger Reserve form less than 5 per cent of the country's geographical area. Here, wildlife conservation should be given priority. We have fought this battle for nearly 10 years and the compromise is very reasonable as there is an excellent alternative road for night-time traffic. Vehicles and travellers have already got used to this alternate arrangement.
2. What is the impact that traffic or human movement, especially vehicular, has on forest ecology, especially in Bandipur, which has a significant tiger population?
Highways through protected areas have a great impact on wildlife including fragmentation of habitats, genetic isolation of wildlife populations, and importantly mortality due to vehicular collisions.
Our country's vehicular traffic is growing at the rate of 10-12 per cent annually and this is going to increase in the coming days. Hence in the interest of wildlife, forest conservation and sustainable development, existing roads within protected areas have to be provided with alternative alignment and existing highways should be decommissioned.
Do we destroy Taj Mahal or Lord Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple to make way for roads or highways? Won't we find alternative routes to protect those historical monuments? In the same way, we should protect our natural heritage including Bandipur Tiger Reserve and its inhabitants. Our wildlife also needs some space and the situation at Bandipur is very fair.
3. What are ways to handle situations of human-animal conflict in such areas?
Conflict occurs due to various reasons including habitat fragmentation, loss and degradation. Hence, the highways passing through Bandipur surely are one of the causes of human-wildlife conflict in the area which needs to be addressed. Also, bringing down conflict to tolerable limits requires a combination of methodologies and long-term work.
4. There were also news reports stating (conveniently so) that the alternate route that is being used has also caused ‘many’ animal fatalities. Your comment?
A few theories and dubious reports have been floated by vested interests who want the night traffic closure lifted. Unfortunately, the bandwagon includes a couple of ‘reputed conservationists’. This report mentioned in the newspaper has little basis and it claims to have carried out research even within Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
Earlier this year, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Karnataka requested for a copy of the permission letter for having carried out this research in Bandipur, and the researchers failed to provide it.
This is even documented and submitted to the Honorable Supreme Court by the Government of Karnataka. Such illegal and dubious reports should be curtailed or else genuine research loses credibility.
This report highlights the mortality of smaller fauna and does not compare it with data from inside Bandipur Tiger Reserve. If no comparison is done, how can it claim that the mortality is higher on the alternative highway?
The alternative highway passes on the edge of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary while NH-766 passes through the core of Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Logic will clearly say that it is ecologically sane to have a highway on the edge than through the heart of the wildlife habitat. Even the report and guidelines prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) clearly says that there should be no highways through the core of the tiger reserve.
5. With declining tiger numbers, what is the need of the hour as far as conservation efforts are concerned?
Infrastructure development is important but needs to be developed sustainably and not at the cost of the nation's natural heritage. When there are alternatives available we should avoid ecologically important areas.
Protecting Bandipur is not merely about wildlife it is also about water security and so many other issues that are directly beneficial to humans. Many important streams and rivulets flow from Bandipur into Kabini River which finally merges into Cauvery. We should protect this important watershed.