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Dangers on the road

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Highway perils: Heavy traffic
Highway perils: Heavy traffic

S. THEODORE BASKARAN

Every act of tampering with Nature extracts an ecological price, as the intrusion of roads through national parks and sanctuaries show...

Road kill is just one of the many problems that come up when a highway passes through a wildlife habitat.

The Karnataka High Court’s judgment on June27 — banning night traffic on NH 212 that cuts through Bandipur Sanctuary — brings to an end the controversy that has been raging on this issue. Since the road passes through two other adjacent sanctuaries — Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala — the verdict, in effect, extends protection to these sanctuaries.

Splitting habitats

Road kills are quite common in roads passing through forests. Last February we were driving along the road from Coonoor to Kotagiri early one morning. Where the road passes through a shola we found a fresh road kill, a Brown civet cat, a rare nocturnal predator endemic to the Western Ghats. In a similar incident a few years ago, I came across the carcass of a Malabar civet, now feared extinct, near Karwar on the highway that runs along the seacoast.

Road kill is just one of the many problems that come up when a highway passes through a wildlife habitat. A road splits the habitat into two; forcing many of the inhabitants to cross the road during their peregrination in search of food, water or a mate, risking their lives, like the cat we saw that morning. Roads often run through migratory routes, exposing the itinerant herds to danger.

Patches of forests that had remained inviolate for eons are opened to human depredation and the roads change their very nature. Careless travellers start forest fires causing immense damage. Domestic cattle that move here pass on contagious diseases to wildlife, which has no immunity to certain illnesses. Few years ago a rinderpest epidemic wiped out thousands of Gaur in the Mudumalai-Bandipur stretch. Roads facilitate ruthless exploitation of the forests by big companies.

Wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth says, “I see, with sadness roads, intruding deep into the forests as the arms of multinationals, like the limbs of an octopus.” When a series of hydro-electric projects and dams were started in the Western Ghats after Independence, it spelt doom to many stretches of forest areas. However, roads are necessary and many arteries like the highway from Guwahati to Jorhat that runs through Kaziranga National Park were laid long before we had any idea of wildlife conservation. In such a situation what we can do is to control the traffic in these roads.

In some sanctuaries, the road is closed for traffic after sun down. Or an alternate route can be provided. The traffic in the state highway 17-D that cuts through Nagerhole National Park will soon be diverted through an alternate route that skirts the park. This issue went up to the Supreme Court and the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted to go into the question suggested this solution. The new route is longer by only three km. Another step is to ensure that new roads are not laid inside prime forests. The proposal for a road through Pushpagiri Sanctuary in Karnataka has been referred to the CEC. Some years earlier there was a proposal to lay a road connecting Papanasam in Tamil Nadu with Thiruvananthapuram. It would have cut across the pristine forest area of Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Sanctuary. Fortunately the idea was dropped.

Occasionally we hear talk of a railway line through the Sathyamangalam forests. We should bear in mind that the railway lines passing through the Gir Sanctuary and the Rajaji National Park routinely take their toll of wildlife. Between Coimbatore and Palakkad, at least seven elephants have been killed in the past two years. Trains can be slowed down in these stretches and the drivers can hoot if necessary too. All this needs some serious inter-departmental coordination, a factor rare in our country.

Risking life

Even the animals seem to know the risk they face when crossing these roads. Recently a group of wild-lifers was motoring from Bandipur to Mudumalai one evening when one spotted a tiger in a lantana bush by the roadside. They reversed the jeep and switched off the engine. The cat waited in the bush for a considerable time for the road to be clear of any traffic. Evidently it was monitoring vehicle movement through sound hiding inside the bush. When it was totally quite, it broke cover and crossed the road. It was a tigress in an advanced stage of pregnancy. As the animal walked leisurely into the forest, they had time to take a few photos.

Be it a road, a dam or dredging an isthmus to make a short cut for ocean liners, every single act of tampering with nature extracts an ecological price. A society should know this price before it takes any such step.


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