Sunday, January 25, 2015

The big cats are back, now clear their corridors

By Amit Bhattacharya, TNN | 25 Jan, 2015
The population of tigers has increased in India from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014.
The population of tigers has increased in India from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014.
NEW DELHI: Indian tigers have come roaring back to life from the crisis of 2006, when just 1,411 were found to be left in the wild.

Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar's announcement that the 2014 tiger census showed a 30% increase in the big cat's numbers in four years has been greeted as a success of India's conservation efforts since that shock.

The turnaround, indeed, is impressive. But in the flush of excitement over the tiger numbers, another important report released by the minister that day went largely unnoticed. That study — "Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-Term Conservation" — is a first-of-its-kind report identifying India's vanishing forest corridors.

It represents the next big battle for Indian conservation, one that it is so far losing. Forest corridors are green spaces, with some or no official protection, that link one protected forest with another. They are channels allowing movement of tigers between forests which ensures genetic diversity and health of the big cat population.

"These corridors are lifelines because most protected forests in India aren't big enough to be viable for the long-term survival of tigers and other species," says Yadvendra Jhala, wildlife biologist at Dehradun's Wildlife Institute of India.

The big cats are back, now clear their corridors
A tigress with her cub.

The average size of our protected forests is about 300-500 sq km. The only way to make them into larger chunks is by connecting them, he says.

But while our core forests — the tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries — have received a good degree of protection, the corridors are vanishing under the demands of development, population growth and short-sighted project designs.

In the Terai region of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh for instance, growing cities are cutting off forest links. The HaridwarRishikesh complex has virtually cleaved the Rajaji National Park.

Officials say no tiger movement has taken place in this corridor for years. As a result, the tiger population of western Rajaji is dying, with just two aging females there.

"A proposal to revive the link was submitted years ago. It involved elevating a portion of the Haridwar highway to enable animal movement. Work started only two years ago and is still going on. Meanwhile, the township has grown. Resorts and six-storey com plexes are coming up in the vicinity that's anyway going to kill the corridor," says Jhala.

A restored link could extend tiger terrain right up to Ponta Sahib in Himachal and Kalesar National Park in Haryana, and provide a good dispersal route for big cats in Corbett, which has the densest tiger population in the world.

The big cats are back, now clear their corridors
Three young tigers in a playful mood.

In Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, road projects on NH-6 and NH-7 are threatening to cut off tiger habitats. Earlier this month, the Maharashtra government set up a committee to resolve the impasse over widening of a 37km stretch of NH-7 that cuts through Pench Tiger Reserve. The national highways authority says it can't implement a Wildlife Institute of India (WII) proposal for building wildlife underpasses because it would cost an additional Rs 750 crore.

"The highway is needed. But it has to be built with mitigation measures. Else, we would lose the tiger population of Pench be cause it's too small a forest to sustain the ani mal," said an activist.

Road projects in the northeast — one threatening the link between Kaziranga and Karbi-Anglong and another between Kaziranga and Pakke Nameri on the Assam Arunachal Pradesh border — have thrown up similar issues.

Forests in and around the Western Ghats, which hold the largest contiguous tiger popu lation in the world are under pressure as well.

"The forest strip in Western Ghats is very narrow, between five to 30 km wide, and ex tremely vulnerable to the massive wave of highway building, hydro power, wind power, mining and land encroachments," says K Ullas Karanth, veteran tiger biologist.

The big cats are back, now clear their corridors
A male Indian tiger.

Across central India, constant battles are being fought over coal mines. For instance, the corridor between Satpura National Park and Pench passes through several mines cov ering around 1,000 sq km. When the issue of opening up this area for mining was referred to WII, it recommended that a 100 sq km be left alone. "There was huge pressure to allow mining on an 80-hectare patch belonging to a politician that falls bang in the middle of the corridor," says a source.

"It's not just about the tigers," says Jhala. "These corridors are indicators of the health of our eco-systems that provide also livelihoods, life support system, goods and services."


No comments: