—Special report by Sanjay Gubbi and Shreya Dasgupta—
On a winter day in November 2013, a passenger train in the eastern state of West Bengal in India collided with a herd of 40 to 50 elephants, killing five adults and two calves. This was not an isolated event. Such grisly incidences have killed tigers, leopards and several other wildlife species in the past. In fact, train-kills like these have become a routine affair in India.
The country’s fiscal growth has necessitated the development and improvement of its surface transport infrastructure. New roads and railway lines have been implemented or planned in many wildlife-rich areas. In addition, several state governments have amplified their demands for new railway lines that would pass through key tiger and elephant habitats.
Bandipur, together with the adjoining Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, has one of the highest densities of large mammals in the world. These reserves connect with other protected areas including BRT, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves, as well as Cauvery and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuaries, forming one of the country’s largest contiguous wild tiger and elephant habitats (approximately 9,000 square kilometers, or 3,475 square miles). This may appear to be stamp-sized when compared to the colossal wildlife habitats in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the area is highly productive, holding wildlife densities comparable to the African savannahs.
To a large extent, the Karnataka Forest Department has curtailed threats such as poaching. But linear intrusions such as highways and power lines continue to disturb these globally important wildlife habitats. Additionally, new threats are emerging as economic changes bring about new needs for India’s human populations. Growing human population and increased affluence among a section of the society has increased the demand for human use of wild areas. This demand is mostly for accommodation of industries such as electricity generation, surface transport, agriculture, tourism and other needs that either fragment or lead to a total loss of wildlife habitats.
The new railway line demanded by the state of Kerala, if implemented, will bisect 32 kilometers (20 miles) through two protected areas (Bandipur and Wayanad). This could eventually spell doom for wildlife, especially wide-ranging species such as tigers and elephants.
Construction of this railway line would only add to Bandipur’s battles against rampant development. Two national highways passing through this tiger reserve have demonstrated the negative impacts that linear intrusions can have on wildlife. Studies have shown highway development through wildlife habitat can lead to high rates of wildlife mortality due to vehicular collisions, genetic isolation, impediment of animal movement and increased agitation due to vehicular noise.
Traffic-related wildlife mortality is especially high at night. Several nocturnal species such as the civet, mouse deer, black-naped hare and various reptiles are regular victims of speeding vehicles. In addition, key prey species for tigers such as axis deer are also regularly hit. Young individuals are particularly susceptible to vehicular collisions at night due to their slow responses to speeding vehicles and their tendency to become transfixed by headlights.
In addition, vehicular traffic during the night could facilitate increased use of the area for illegal activities such as timber smuggling and wildlife poaching. Previously caught poachers in Bandipur and BRT Tiger Reserves confessed to having hunted at night on the highways passing through these reserves. Highway edges are a nighttime draw for many prey species due to increased visibility of predators; unfortunately, by lingering near roadways, these species become more visible to human hunters.
Through persistent efforts, forest officials, the state board of wildlife and conservationists convinced key policy and decision makers of the conservation merits of night traffic closure. They did this by providing a solution that would ensure commuters at night would remain unaffected: an alternative road that bypassed Bandipur, and which was only 35 kilometers (20 miles) longer than the highways inside the protected area.
Soon after, in a landmark move, the state government of Karnataka spent $7.8 million (INR 4.7 billion) to improve this alternative road. It passes along the edge of Nagarahole and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuaries, and is a much less damaging option when compared to traffic passing through the core of Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves at night.
However, the battle is not yet over. We continue to fight against business interests who have challenged the night closure in the Supreme Court of India. But for now, the ban has ensured at least a little peace for tigers, their prey and other denizens of Bandipur, Mudumalai and Wayanad.
Yet, the progress made by reducing the impact of highways has so far not been echoed by railways. The neighboring state of Kerala has remained the loudest and most persistent supporter of the proposed line. They remain obstinate despite the Indian Railway’s report that the project is not economically feasible, demanding a huge investment on the order of $700 million (INR 42.67 billion). Additionally, they say that environmental impacts can be very large. Based on this report, the Kerala High Court rejected the rail expansion project when business interests expressed opposition.
Protagonists of the railway line argue that an elevated track would be environmentally feasible. However, the funds needed to build such a track and the disturbances it would create during the construction phase (which often happens at snail’s pace in India) may be substantial and prohibitive.
For countries like India where protected areas are small and human population is great, finding solutions in the best interests of wildlife is of huge importance – and very complicated. It’s not just about keeping rail tracks out of the animals’ way. As our protected areas are small, the problems facing them are several folds higher than those in North America, where engineering solutions could prove to be win-win solutions. Any additional development within India’s protected areas comes at a huge cost to wildlife.
The proposed railway line would also be completely counterproductive to attempts at conserving wildlife habitats in the area. For example, the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in India has designated theadjoining areas of Bandipur as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). Developmental activities such as mining and construction of polluting industries and hydropower projects are prohibited or regulated in ESZs that exist in the immediate vicinity of a protected area. Developing a railway line either within the tiger reserve or in the limits of the ESZ is also prohibited. However, many business groups have been relentlessly using political pressure in effort to circumvent these regulations and implement the railway project through Bandipur.
Since December 2011, the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera have supported the efforts of the government to ensure that ESZs are designated around the protected areas of Karnataka. They convinced elected representatives and local communities, as well as provided technical input for the delineation and declaration of ESZs. This has been seen as a unique effort as in most areas it is difficult to convince political leaders of the benefits of conservation. However, a senior legislator from the area helped us garner support among other legislators and people within the district.
Additionally, the National Wildlife Action Plan drafted under the chairmanship of the country’s Prime Minister, mandates the Ministry of Surface Transport and Ministry of Railways to by-pass all protected areas and corridors while constructing roads and railways. Yet, governments continue to demand that these linear infrastructures pass through fragile landscapes.
There are several alternatives available for transporting freight and passengers while avoiding areas like Bandipur and Waynad. While these alternatives may be slightly more expensive, their ecological benefits are many. The budget of the Indian railways for the year 2014-15 is a colossal $10.74 billion (INR 643 billion), and building alternative routes that bypass wildlife-rich areas will make but a small dent in the allocated resources.
India has earmarked about four percent of the country’s landscape for wildlife preservation and protection. If the swarms of vehicles and speeding trains are kept out of these regions, it would neither affect the country’s aspiring economic growth, nor would it hinder any of our transportation problems.
Losing iconic or keystone species such as tigers and elephants to train-kills would truly undermine the conservation efforts of the government and the many private organizations working hard to preserve India’s unique and irreplaceable biological legacy. When it comes to saving the endangered species of this country, developing safer alternative routes for transport should be a mantra. The tiger cannot change its ecological behavior or move to another habitat; hence, it is up to us to redraw our plans.
Sanjay Gubbi is a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera, and Shreya Dasgupta is a science communicator at the Nature Conservation Foundation. Both are based in Bangalore, India.