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A dangerous path: New highway could jeopardize tigers in India

  • Conservationists have witnessed several unsettling deaths of tigers in Corbett National Park recently, one of India’s most important tiger parks.
  • The state government of Uttarakhand, however, is moving forward on a plan to upgrade a road through the park into a full, public highway leading to alarm among tiger conservationists.
  • Officials are currently discussing turning portions of the highway into a flyover, allowing wildlife to pass underneath, but even this would only mitigate the impact.

On May 1, forestry officials in the Indian state of Uttarakhand discovered a tiger cub, abandoned and injured. They attempted to rescue the animal, but had arrived too late – it succumbed to dehydration the next day. Another young tiger, rescued in the region on the same day, died of starvation the following week.

Ten tigers have now been found dead or dying in Uttarakhand since the beginning of 2017, and conservationists fear many more deaths could be on the horizon. The Uttarakhand government has recently proposed turning a small, partially paved road into a full-fledged national highway that would run straight through the heart of the state’s Corbett Tiger Reserve.

India’s flagship tiger park

Located in the northeast of India, at the foot of the Himalayas, Corbett Tiger Reserve spans over 1,300 square kilometers of dense forest and lush grassland fed by the sprawling Ramganga River reservoir. Corbett and the surrounding region are home to over 300 Bengal tigers, as well as a plethora of other wildlife including Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), leopards (Panthera pardus), sloth bears (Melursus ursinus), spotted deer (Axis axis), and a dizzying array of birdlife.

Not only is Corbett the oldest national park in India, it was also the flagship park of the Indian government’s Project Tiger in the 1970s, launched to encourage sustainable management of the country’s tiger population. In many ways, Corbett is held up as the gold standard for what a tiger reserve should be, and indeed, its tiger population has been expanding in recent years.

The reserve has “some of the world’s most productive tiger habitat,” said Dr. John Goodrich, Senior Tiger Program Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.

“However,” Goodrich cautioned, “it is likely not large enough to withstand reduction, degradation, or fragmentation of habitat.”

This year’s spate of deaths and their causes indicate that threats to habitats could already be occurring. In addition to dehydration and starvation, veterinarians have cited territorial infighting by tigers and alleged poisoning as likely causes of death.

“Abnormal levels of infighting for territory, leading to early and increased mortality” and “increased conflict with human populations” are warning signs that a tiger population is lacking adequate space and resources, said Dr. Ashley Brooks, Habitats and Human Wildlife Conflict Lead for WWF Tigers Alive.

The proposed highway would only exacerbate these issues, according to experts, and bring even more potential threats to Corbett’s important tiger population.

Corbett Tiger Reserve is home to the densest population of Bengal tigers in the world, with one tiger every 6km2. Image credit: Soumyajit Nandyvia Wikimedia Commons.

More tigers need more space

In 2010, the world’s 13 tiger-countries committed to doubling the global tiger population, increasing numbers from around 3,200 to over 6,000 by 2022. As of 2016, that commitment might be seeing some tentative success. According to a WWF report, the number of wild tigers has increased to 3,800 individuals. Yet some conservationists have called into question this figure based on what they contend is dubious data. Moreover, such numbers don’t tell the full story: tiger populations are still dropping in many parts of their range and numerous subspecies are on the knife’s edge of extinction.

WWF recommends that to accommodate tigers’ needs, governments should manage tiger landscapes as a mosaic of different habitats linking smaller tiger populations, and incorporating mitigating “buffer zones.” Smaller, highly protected areas thus act as “source” populations while the surrounding areas absorb “sink” populations that spread out through the corridors.

These connective corridors are a critical part of the equation. Tigers currently roam just seven percent of their historic range, and there is little research on how tigers might adapt to a more cramped living environment, according to Wildlife Institute of India’s Dr. Bivash Pandav. Tigers’ territories are naturally very large – their ranges can encompass up to 1,000 square kilometers. When a high-density tiger population cannot access corridors to spread out, it could begin to suffer from poor genetic variation and increased conflict with humans and other tigers.

“The first thing to know about wild tigers is that these are large predators that need protected and connected areas to roam, a healthy prey population to hunt, and access to water,” explained Brooks from WWF.

As of the last population estimate by India’s Project Tiger in 2014, Corbett contains the highest density of tigers on the planet. It has thus far acted as a crucial source population for what is known as the Terai Arc landscape, but according to WWF, it might now be suffering the ill effects of poor landscape connectivity. And roads have been known to turn otherwise robust source habitats into sinks.

The proposed national highway route through Corbett would cut straight through the park, fragmenting rather than expanding the range of an already over-crowded tiger population. A report released last year by WWF called linear infrastructure such as roads, “one of the greatest future threats to tigers.”

Additionally, one of the only studies conducted solely on the impact of road construction on tigers concluded, unambiguously that “in habitats managed for tigers, construction of new roads should be prohibited wherever possible.” Fragmentation from roads could trap the high number of tigers in Corbett into a space too small to support them, leading to starvation, infighting, and human-tiger conflict.

“Corbett is increasingly getting hemmed in by ever-expanding highways and roads, mining of sand, boulders and gravel and tourism infrastructure,” said Prerna Singh Bindra, a wildlife conservationist and former member of India’s National Board for Wildlife. “Protecting the integrity of this landscape is a must for the survival of tigers in the long term.”

Corbett Tiger Reserve is a mixture of open grassland and forest, providing a diverse habitat for tigers, elephants, and birdlife. Image credit: Public Domain by Creative Commons.

Road rage

Experts, environmentalists, and concerned citizens have been pushing back against the national highway plans. A petition begun by activist Ashish Garg has accumulated over 25,000 signatures.

The Uttarakhand government’s announcement that the road was to be made into a highway “was simply outrageous,” Garg told Mongabay in an email. “More so when there are alternatives available to construct new roads or widen existing highways which will also reduce the travelling time by the same duration.”

But the government contends that the highway – which will cut down the travel time between the cities of Kotdwar and Ramnagar by two hours – can be constructed in a way that does not harm the park’s wildlife.

“The government is trying to find a solution to the Kandi road project issue by which the safety of wildlife is ensured while keeping the convenience of people in mind,” said the Uttarakhand Forest Minister in a statement in The Hindu.

However, wildlife experts like Avinash Basker, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) Legal Programme, do not think this is possible.

“Once the road is in use there will be wildlife deaths due to collisions, vehicular pollution and disturbance, easy access to outsiders, and the road will act as a barrier for the movement of wildlife.”

This is not the first time the specter of a highway has hung over the reserve: road construction through the park was halted in 2001 after an elephant poaching incident drew concerns about creating an even easier access point for poachers. Conservationists say such concerns remain just as valid today. Panthera’s Goodrich cited poaching as a “critical threat” to the tigers in the Terai Arc landscape.

In 2013, after considering these arguments against roadways, a committee from the Ministry of Environment and Forests formally recommended a ban on all new roads and the expansion of existing roads through protected areas in India. While not legally binding, this guideline was meant to dissuade any such future road construction and strengthen any case made against it.

“Simply put,” said Bindra, who was part of the committee at the time, “roads spell the end of wilderness.”

The ways forward?

The Supreme Court has pushed back against the Uttarakhand government’s plans slightly, ruling against the use of public transport on the section of the road through the park and requesting plans for an alternative alignment. However, construction plans appear to be pushing ahead.

Currently, the proposed mitigating solution is building flyover sections of highway that would allow wildlife to pass underneath the road. Raised highways can prove expensive, however, and those proposed in theory are often not translated into practice. If the reserve is to continue to be a shining example of tiger conservation, even properly managed mitigating measures will never be as effective as simply avoiding fragmentation of the landscape in the first place.

“Mitigation measures by definition do not prevent damage, they only mitigate it,” said Basker of WPSI. “The way to avoid damage to local wildlife is to avoid building a road through the tiger reserve.”

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