My romance with tigers and Tiger Reserves (TR) stayed undimmed. Notwithstanding the unstinted offering of the mother-son duo at Ranthambhore and mother-cub quadruplets at Pench and the charisma they exuded, my mind inexplicably was pinned more on the wild habitats. Long discussions with Rajesh Gopal, SP, and Himmat Negi had helped me appreciate the implications of long term ecological conservation through TRs. I read all that they offered to remove cobwebs in my woolly head. I went back to the Project Tiger (PT)’s origin, among the most ambitious conservation projects the world has seen, which in scale, size, and diversity of field operations and challenges, has no parallel.
It began in the early-1960s to protect tigers and its habitats. But it picked up speed under the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. An enthusiastic wildlife lover, she set up a Task Force in 1972 with Dr. Karan Singh as the Chair. On recommendations of the Task Force, 9 tiger reserves were identified and the PT had gotten under way. Today it’s grown into 50 TRs across 18 States encompassing nearly 40,340 sq. km of core and critical tiger habitat in the form of forests, meadows, mountains and scrubland. More than protecting the endangered species, it has morphed into a holistic ecosystem approach defining the core-buffer strategy, encompassing protection and development initiatives, and giving a new perspective to the concept of wildlife management in India. Today, it’s become a role model for conservationists worldwide.
In hindsight, PT was a master stroke. Indira Gandhi was clairvoyant to crystal gaze the implications of sculpting a measure of government-backed conservation of environment in the natural order of things, despite unavailability of firm data. Conservation of tiger has ecological significance transcending state and national boundaries. Tigers sit atop the ecological food-chain; their conservation cascades into overall wellness of all species of plants and animals populating the ecosystem. As territorial animals, tigers serve as barometers of forest ecosystem: a healthy tiger population suggests ecological wellness, much as an unhealthy population index is ecologically worrisome. Four decades since the launch of PT and its success, tigers continue to remain one of the world’s most endangered large predators.
Agricultural expansion and developmental priorities, revenge killings by people as sequel to man-animal conflicts, demand for tigers’ body parts and derivatives in the illegal global market make them very vulnerable. On the flip side, tiger conservation sets off several intangibles and life-supporting benefits. Forests act as carbon sinks, it grants Meso climate; the presence of continuous forest cover to a depth of ten kilometres impacts climate of nearby areas, even to a hundred kilometres – a phenomenon beneficial to both humans and crops as shield from climate extremes. There are several others too.
Problems stay, though. This is natural in a diverse country with a democratic, federal set-up. It takes time and energy to disabuse loads of transferred knowledge to deemed wisdom, when they aren’t necessarily wise or correct. One such is the belief that the traditional resource dependency of forest dwellers is benign. Not always so. Nature has over time changed from its primordial state and keeps changing, little by little, most unobtrusively, as everything else does; it is natural that all stakeholders need to calibrate their responses to these changes. Often with our human endeavor catalyzing changes, several distortions have crept in to misshape the forest dynamics itself. Demographic pressure shows as people chip away at forest’s edges. With just two percent of the world’s forest area, we support 17 percent of the global livestock and an equal percentage of humans. Nothing possibly is more challenging today than sustaining a system of viable protected areas in a country like India.
Developmental activities are another serious worry. It’s no one’s case that development shouldn’t happen. That’s not the issue. The point is how to ensure development without despoiling the ecosystem or if damage can’t be avoided, how about seeking appropriate by-passes to keep them virgin – pristine and viable? Sustainable development, the global much sexed-up term, like statistics, hides more than it reveals. Isn’t the dialectics of development versus environment unequal? Can an intangible environment ace the tangibles of development that you can literally hold in your hands, and even palpate? Given man’s natural impulse to improve his lot, isn’t this a David vs. Goliath dueling? How harshly things are pitted against ecosystems, I silently witnessed in one of the Chai pe Charchas. In the euphoria of government formation, Javadekar, mimicking Modi’s pre-election hype, had instituted a quotidian 9 o’clock morning meeting with Additional Secretaries/Additional DGs and above officers. Charcha (discussion) at 9 was anathema for most senior bureaucrats’ lifetime habits – it affronted their sense of dignity to show up at workplace on time!
The discussion veered around the road-widening and four-laning of NH7 between Kanhaand Pench TRs. Nitin Gadkari, the Road & Highways Minister had called, Javadekar said, enquiring after the status of clearance. Rajesh Gopal told Javadekar that the three suggested underpasses, each of 50 meters, are an apology for animal movement and not acceptable. Javadekar snapped, fraying: “When we can’t feed people, must we bother about wild animals!” A sepulchral silence descended on the assemblage. But Rajesh Gopal, sitting in one corner, held forth – as a true blue-blooded conservationist and India’s foremost hands-on tiger man (he’s presently Secretary General of the Global Tiger Forum, an intergovernmental international organisation, looking after all 13 tiger range countries of the world) would – unyieldingly, not letting go his emphasis on the acute need to protect the iconic tiger corridor, and belabouring the significance of the tiger gene pool.
The issue revolved around prioritising tiger conservation through landscape genetics and habitat linkages. The 150 km area between Pench and Kanha TRs extending eastward to Achanakmar is most critical for tiger gene flow of its population. Camera-trappings since 2006 have yearly recorded tiger dispersing, and with presence of gaur, sambar and chitalaffirming it as a vital tiger movement corridor. Field observers have further confirmed evidence of resident tigers. A sub-adult male tiger photo-captured in Pench TR in 2006 had become the territorial breeding male in Kanha TR in 2010! One study showed significant reduction in gene flow between TR pairs with degraded corridors (Kanha–Satpura, Kanha–Melghat and Melghat–Pench), while there wasn’t any significant change among TRs connected with forest corridors (Kanha–Pench, Satpura–Melghat and Pench–Satpura). With more than 13% of sampled tigers dispersing within the Kanha–Pench landscape in the last decade, developmental projects – widening of national highways and rail lines – will cleave the corridor with permanent barriers and affect connectivity big time. The corridor, an exemplar of two source tiger populations managed as one meta-population, will be dented. Environmentalists and foresters have, naturally, clamoured to ensure green infrastructure mitigation measures to keep it going.
The conversations didn’t go too well that day, but all along I was quietly mulling over the reality. By the time I trudged back to my room after the Charcha my mind was intuiting, seeking an answer. Sadly I realised that in an unequal battle between development and environment, with political parties indulging in hugger-mugger populism and optics, and least appreciating the need to equilibrate, the former shall always prevail. This makes Project Tiger all the more challenging and, paradoxically, also more relevant. The Environment vs. Development debate – exacerbating with bedevilling climate change, and manifesting in Nature’s quirky ways like serial tornados/hurricanes, rise in global temperature, wildfires, and downpour deluging deserts – is bound to surge exponentially in the years ahead.
The expansion of NH-7 on this 10 km stretch of road doubtless will impact Pench TR both in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It will destroy the corridor between two of India’s iconic TRs, Kanha to Pench – the locale of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book – apart from impacting Navegaon-Nagzira TR, comprising five protected areas (PAs): Nagzira, New Nagzira, Koka, NavegaonNational Park, and Navegaon Wildlife Sanctuary. Around the time the matter was in the Courts, in March 2016 a group of 29 eminent scientists and conservationists, and many among them who had served on various statutory and expert committees, like the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), NTCA, Forest Advisory Committee, WII etc. for decades, wrote to the NTCA and the WII, flagging critical ecological, legal and policy elements of the NH7 inter alia strongly urging to:
(i) Recommend to the High Court that mitigation measures as per the WII’s original May 2012 report are absolutely necessary and non-negotiable;
(ii) Address the issue where there is no overlap of the proposed mitigation measures with the identified animal crossing zones;
(iii) Recommend that the existing road below the recommended underpasses be decommissioned and the habitat be restored to natural conditions to allow wild animals to use the corridor in an unhindered manner; and,
(iv) Ensure that in the future, the principle of avoidance must be followed as per the NBWL Sub-Committee’s recommendations for roads in Protected Areas.
While work on the NH-7 was stalled by the National Green Tribunal, the Nagpur-bench of the Bombay High Court allowed road widening with the mitigating provision to construct a paltry 1.8 km of road bridges for animal movement. The Supreme Court upheld the High Court order, and in effect went against the recommendations of its own Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which had categorically said that “the ecological cost of the present project is immense and that no mitigation measures are adequate to compensate the same” since it would cause “irreparable damage to a critical wildlife habitat.” The CEC couldn’t have been more forthright. It stressed that the NH-7 work is among the exceptional cases where ecological security must take precedence over developmental concerns, even suggesting that rather than widening this critical stretch of road, the alternative route via Chhindwara could be explored. The moot point is: Can the fidelity of invisible eco-sensitive environmental concerns that may tote up to, say, 10 times more than the cost of developmental work, triumph over return on investment, optics, grandstanding, and instant hyperboles or jumla of perfervid patriotism? My fingers are crossed!
The impassioned plea of environmentalists has improved mitigation measures in this stretch of NH7 road, but only just. The latest information is that the length of animal underpass has been increased to 2,205 metres on Maharashtra side and 2,100 metres in Madhya Pradesh, with the height reduced to 5 metres from the original 7. I checked with eminent animal biologists like Rajesh Gopal who, as the former Field Director Kanha Tiger Reserve and Member Secretary NTCA, knows the terrain and animal behaviour like the back of his hand. They consider it as a compromise. Here was a chance for a country with the largest wild tiger population to demonstrate its commitment to conservation and infrastructure development to go in a complementary manner, but alas the mitigation didn’t happen that way!
Ironically, one such crisis not too long ago had acted the savior for Project Tiger. Sariskahad lost its tigers ostensibly to poaching, circa 2004. No tigers were being sighted in the TR; more alarmingly, there was no indirect evidence of tigers’ presence through pugmarks, scats or scratch marks on trees. Sariska (like Panna TR later) mercifully was successfully repopulated, but the shock rippled out, sounding warning bells in the highest quarters. On recommendations of the National Board for Wildlife chaired by the Prime Minister on March 17, 2005, a Task Force was set up to focus on tiger conservation and suggest improvement measures. The NTCA born in 2006, aimed at ratcheting up India’s confidence in the conservation of tiger, its national animal, was granted statutory and administrative powers, and obligated to submit PT annual report to the Parliament. Despite vicissitudes, it has happily lived up to the confidence reposed on it.