Sanjay Gubbi says wildlife should be the priority in protected areas, which makes up only 4% of India’s landscape.

Road ecology is crucial when it comes to saving wildlife Conservationist explains Rameshng/ WikiCommons
news Wildlife Tuesday, July 03, 2018 - 18:42

“It’s like someone is building a road through your house - your living room is on one side and the kitchen is on the other and if the traffic is continuous, you will feel cutoff from supplies.”

This analogy by Sanjay Gubbi, a prominent conservationist in Karnataka, best explains what it is like for wildlife along the 27 km stretch of the Mysore-Mananthwadi Road, which passes through the southern part of the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve.

His recent book, Second Nature: Saving Tiger Landscape in the Twenty-First Century, opens with a photograph of a tiger drinking water out of a pothole on Mysore-Mananthavadi highway. After several years, the  decision to decommission the 27-km stretch was upheld by the Supreme Court in May this year, a battle which was won by Sanjay and his team of conservationists.  

Image courtesy: Arvind Ramamurthy

The Mysore-Mananthwadi Road is a State Highway which connects Mysuru in Karnataka to the Wayanad district in Kerala. The wildlife of the area moves across the road towards the Kabini reservoir - the main source of water for all the wildlife in the area during summers. The Kabini reservoir also acts as a boundary between the Nagarhole and Bandipur tiger reserves and as a pass-through between the two reserves when water levels are low. And there’s no doubt that ecology was not considered when the Mysore-Mananthwadi Road was constructed in 1974.

“The subject is called Road Ecology. The studies which are done in this field show how colossal the problem is,” says Sanjay. As per data collated by Sanjay, during the period between 2010 and 2017, 130 chitals, 26 sambars, 27 sloth bears, 2 elephants, 2 hyenas and 1 tiger has been killed in Karnataka owing to Wildlife-Vehicle Collision (WVC). And the numbers are especially glaring considering that they denote only deaths and not accidents which causes injuries. Another caveat is the fact that such studies also suffer from cases of non-detection.

“Road Ecology is an applied issue with direct management impact. And it has not attracted the attention of researchers in a big manner here in India,” he says, speaking of the traction which road ecology has gained over the years in the Scandinavian countries, Australia and the US.

The roads, which move through wildlife reserves are at times used for poaching and illegal transporting of livestock between states and groups like Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) and People for Animals (PfA), both of which are animal rights groups, joined the fight for the nighttime closure of the highway. And surprisingly even the Karnataka state tax department, which was losing revenue owing to the illegal transportation of sand, granite and various other goods via the highway was also brought into the fray. And so, various interest groups came together for the betterment of all.

“If you want to succeed, you have to understand society,” Sanjay says, elaborating on how people who care and people whose lives are directly affected should come together. “You can’t do it alone.”

Image courtesy: G Studios

Speaking of the mitigation measures for Wildlife-Vehicle Collision, Sanjay says, “It can be nighttime closure for vehicular traffic, decommissioning of old roads because society changes over time, landscape also changes and as an economy we grow to be able to afford alternate routes which might be longer but don’t cut through Protected Areas.”

“And other speed-regulating measures like rumble strips, humps and chicanes” he adds.

The highways which move through Protected Areas like wildlife reserves also have an adverse impact on the behaviour of animals. Studies conducted by Sanjay and his team have shown that the animals appear highly tense when crossing the roads. “Much like when older humans try to cross high-traffic streets,” Sanjay says.

In July 2008, for the first time the stretch of the Mysore-Mananthwadi Road which moves into the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve was closed to all traffic between 6pm and 6am. Barring Emergency vehicles like ambulances, police cars, no other vehicular traffic was allowed on the stretch. This nighttime closure followed repeated and sustained efforts on the part of Sanjay and his team, as well as those like then District Collect of Mysuru Manivannan Ponnaiah, who had administrative jurisdiction of the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, Meera Saxena, then Principal Secretary of Forests, Ecology and Environment and others.

The justifications for night closure have been detailed in Sanjay’s book Second Nature:

“Most wild animal mortalities caused by vehicular collisions occur at night… Nocturnal animals would be able to move safely across the highways if there were no speeding vehicles on the highways to act as barriers between the two sides the forest. Headlights and sound disturb the animals as their body morphology and especially their eyes are made for locomotion in the dark. The cover of darkness is also when some highways have been used to access forests to hunt wildlife.”

In addition to night closure, one section of the road was also decommissioned. Both the moves, however, were opposed by various interest groups and the case finally came to a close at the Supreme Court where both the decisions - night closure and decommissioning - were upheld in May this year.

Based on recommendations of the officials at Bandipur, the night closure model was also implemented on two highways passing through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve - NH 67 (Gundlupet-Ooty Road) and NH 212 (Gundlupet-Sultan Batthery Road). This too was challenged in the court.

Talking about compromises and reaching a middle ground in conservation efforts, Sanjay says that the alternate road, which was proposed in lieu of the two roads which pass through Bandipur, runs along the boundary of the Nagarhole reserve. But this alternate is still far better than roads which cut right through tiger reserves.

When asked if ideally there should be no roads passing through reserves, he replies, “In some areas - yes. It’s like zoning laws… in the city we don’t allow commercial establishments in residential areas. So, in protected areas, which constitute only about 4% of the entire landscape of India, the priority should be the wildlife and I would love it if this were the case. But practically, this is not feasible.”

Sanjay Gubbi, Image Courtesy: Poornesha HC 

With the nighttime closure being implemented in Nagarhole and Bandipur, a precedent was set and soon Tamil Nadu followed suit by ordering the nighttime closure of the road which cuts through the Mudumalai National Park and so did Gujarat with the Gir National Park.

“These kinds of conservation efforts shouldn’t just be seen as good work” Sanjay says. “The work puts forth models which can be implemented in other places too.”

This month, a Supreme Court case hearing is coming up regarding the nighttime closure on the two highways passing through Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The case is also a story of our broken federal system, where Karnataka ordered the night closure on interstate highways (Karnataka-Kerala, Karnataka-Tamil Nadu). Tamil Nadu too went on to close their part of the highway in support of wildlife conservation but Kerala, despite being provided an alternate route, continues to protest against it.

“Hope,” Sanjay says, responding to a question about why he wrote ‘Second Nature’ and goes on to read a paragraph from the book:

“My work to save these majestic species has been paved with anxiety and uncertainty, as well as joy. It has taken me to places that are beautiful. I have met people who have been extremely generous but also those who have attempted to intimidate me. These chapters are about the paths available to make ordinary miracles happen. I hope this book will be of some value to every person who has gazed at a tiger in awe and wished that this beautiful animal will never become extinct. If it inspires even a handful of people, I will be delighted.”

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