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14 November, 2012

Existing ecological and urbanisation realities and the ban on night traffic inside PAs of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve

In a nutshell
Banning traffic/ closing existing roads inside prime PAs and diverting the same to roads in adjoining forests is like dumping your city's garbage in surrounding villages. 

The contiguous forest cover of interior peninsula India surrounding the junction of Eastern and Western Ghats (peninsular India's green crescent as I like to call it) from Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple (BRT) (Chamarajanagar District in Karnataka) up to Kempuhole (Hassan Dist, Karnataka) and beyond has several major roads that pass through forests. On  one hand while these roads cut across wildlife corridors and habitat of big game - herbivores like elephants and gaur as well as big cats like the tiger, they also are lifelines for tens of thousands of humans, including marginal farmers who use them to transport their produce to the major markets of the region. Inside this green crescent are a string of protected areas many of which, along with some reserve forests, comprise the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), India's first. 

Please click for larger size
The issue
Within the last 4 years, a couple of existing major inter-state roads inside well known protected forests of NBR have been closed for night traffic, after studies showed high number of road kills in on those forest roads, particularly at night. The Antharasanthe check post - Udburu turn section (between Bawali checkpost and Antharsanthe) of the Manathavadi - Mysore road, a major inter-state highway has been closed even during day and vehicles now take a severe beating on the adjacent pot hole filled, single lane village roads. I drove on these 'alternate' roads in Aug this year (2012). 

A mouse deer run over on the Maddur - Muthanga stretch of Mysore - Sultan Bathery road inside Bandipur Tiger Reserve. (Pic Jun 2011)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
But closing one road means the traffic is simply diverted to nearest alternate road, again through forest. In the green crescent, like much of Western Ghats, the amount of forest spread makes it impossible to have an alternate road outside the forest. Let's speak of one such road, the Bawli Checkpost - Antharasanthe stretch (inside Nagarahole national park) of Mananthavadi - Mysore highway. Let's look at the alternatives available for the Mananthvadi - Mysore traffic after its closure for night traffic:

a) Mananthavadi - Sultan Bathery - Maddur forest (Bandipur) - Gundlupete: Forest closed at night as it passes through Bandipur tiger reserve.

A wild Asian elephant trying to cross the Maddur - Muthanga stretch of Mysore - Gundlupet - Sultan Bathery Road inside Wayanad wildlife sanctuary. (Pic Jun 2011)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
b) Mananthavadi - Sultan Bathery - Gudalur (TN) - Thepkadu (Mudumalai) - Bandipur forest - Gundlupete: Forest closed at night as it passes through Bandipur and Mudumalai tiger reserves.
Kakanna halla gate - Bandipur complex stretch of Mysore - Ooty highway. (Pic Jan 2009)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
c) Mananthvadi - Sultan Bathery - Ooty - Mettupalyam - Banneri/Satyamangalam - Punjur - Chamrajnagar - Nanjangud - Mysore: Too circuitous; And this road also cuts through the tiger & elephant forests around BRT (Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy) and Satayamangalam tiger reserves, between Banneri and Punjur. 

A view of Moyar Valley forests in Nilgiris north division, with the hill forests of Satyamangalam tiger reserve in the far background. (Pic Oct 2011)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
d) Mananthvadi - Katikulam (Kerala) - Tholpetty forest (Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, Kerala) - Kutta (K'taka) - Nagarahole forest - Murkal - Hunsur - Mysore: Among the earliest of forests to be closed at night, as it passes through the heart of Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) national park.

Southern entrance of Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) national park near Kutta village on the Kutta - Hunsur road leading onwards to Mysore. (Pic Sep 2001)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
e) Mananthvadi - Katikulam (Kerala) - Tholpetty forest (Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, Kerala) - Kutta (K'taka) - Gonikoppal - Tithimati (Nagarahole park) - Hunsur - Mysore: This chicken neck is the ONLY forested link between Nagarahole and Brahmagiri WLS*. Also a part of the Gonikoppal - Hunsur stretch beyond Tithimati is a physical part of Nagarahole NP - contiguous forests, same wildlife. 

*As predicted this traffic has begun to take a toll of the wildlife, particularly at night. Check this story (Times of India, 14 Nov 2012) 

A view in monsoons of the Tholpety - Kutta stretch of Mananthavadi - Kutta road which leads to Mysore through Gonikoppal and Hunsur. As per a report in TOI (14 Nov '12), this is seeing high road kills due closure at night of Bawali - Antharasanthe road. (Pic Jun 2011)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
f) Iritty - Makutta - Virajpete - Hunsur: Heavy traffic will split the Makutta wildlife and territorial ranges and restrict movement/ affect migration of wildlife between the wildlife sanctuaries of Talakaveri (in the west) and Brahmagiri (east). 

A picture of the Beerambadi - Makutta stretch of Virajpete - Kannur highway. On the left is Makutta wildlife range (Brahmagiri wildlife sanctuary) and on the right is Makutta territorial range (Virajpet territorial division) which is contiguous with Talakaveri wildlife sanctuary and beyond with Sampaje reserve forests as well as Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary. (Pic Oct 2001)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
One doesn't need much convincing that the human population has increased and so has the buying power of these people in the past two decades, the later particularly since India's economic liberalisation in early 1990s. Question is, what gains are made by closing one road inside a PA only to push the traffic to an adjoining one again in the forest?

My observations of the human-wildlife conflict

I have been visiting the forests of NBR at an average of twice a year since my first visit as a serious nature observer in Jan 1993. I have taken part in quite a few wildlife surveys and estimation exercises across NBR since then, getting rare opportunities to walk through a vast majority of NBR's reserve forests - wildlife and territorial. A few months ago I was fortunate enough to eyewitness a researcher at work to study the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the Western Ghats districts of Nilgiris, Wayanad, Kodagu and Hassan. In June 2011, as part of an assignment with my previous employer, I had a chance to drive through much of this green crescent with him from Gundlupete, Mysore Dist in the centre of NBR northwards to Sakaleshpur, Hassan Dist through Bandipur-Wayanad-Nagarahole PAs and Coorg (Kodagu) & Hassan Districts' forests. 

From what I understand, the human elephant problem adjoining Tithimati forests along Gonikoppal - Hunsur road in Kodagu Dist and the forests northwards in Kodagu's Somwarpete taluk along its borders with Hassan Dist, is more intense than around Kabini reservoir surrounding Nagarahole and Bandipur PAs, if the number of people being killed is a measure. There is data & reports prepared for Project Elephant as well as Govt of Karnataka which will probably tell us why the forested stretch of the Hunsur - Gonikoppal highway is a better candidate for 'night curfew' than the Bawali checkpost - Antharasanthe stretch of Manathavadi - Mysore highway

Foot prints of elephants at the border of Titimati forests closed by a power fence. Elephants regularly visit power fences around forests to check if they are working. They break fences that do not have electricity in them. (Pic Jun 2011)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
'4 to 5 % PA' islands?
Our PAs are being increasingly isolated from the landscapes surrounding them. As a serious wildlife enthusiast I see tremendous destruction these days in the non-protected area forests all around me, NBR not being an exception. The rate at which natural resources (sand, wood, granite etc) are being extracted from the smaller forests, the day is not far when the big PAs will inevitably have to be opened up for these activities. After all they are a part of the same landscape and the country we live in and cannot be kept isolated into posterity.

A hill being mined for granite at Hale Nijagal state forest, Bangalore Rural District along the Tumkur - Nelamangala stretch of National Highway 4 . The demand for natural resources will shift from reserve and minor forests to the door steps of our 4-5% PAs unless we have a sound overall strategy to tackle growing urbanisation across the nation. (Pic: Oct 2012)
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved) 
As a nation how we overcome the threats from an ever increasing human population becoming urbanised and tackle their fetish for consumerism, will determine the future of our wildlife. For that the entire landscape needs to be looked at, meaning 100% of our nation, not just the 4-5% PAs that seem so tempting to work on as they provide easy headlines. The 4-5% is going to be gobbled up sooner or later if the rest is not taken care of. Whether we still want to cling on to the 4-5% argument is our choice. 

Any solution?
The traffic flowing through our PAs like that in NBR is a symptom. Wildlife slaughtered by such traffic denotes something wrong, a bigger problem. 
Banning traffic through selected roads is first aid, not a permanent solution. It cannot work in the long run and will be a missed opportunity if we soon do not come up with strategies and action plans to tackle the larger issues.

In conservation,

Ameen Ahmed 
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