Guwahati, June 27: Few days back a distressing video surfaced online where a leopard was severely injured after it was hit by a vehicle in Pune-Nashik highway. The big cat was stuck to the bonnet of the car and was trying to escape the situation during which its skin was scrapped off leading grievously injury. This is just one instance, in the past, leopard deaths have been reported from across the nation due to speeding vehicles.
Along with the rest of the nation, the man-elephant conflict has been a regular affair in Assam, several videos on social media show how elephant herds regularly enter human settlements in several parts of the State. On March this year, Environment and Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya told the Assembly that as many as 924 people got killed in man-elephant conflicts across Assam in the past decade, while 772 were injured in such conflicts. Moreover, the elephants are long ranging animals following which they travel from one place to another and they often fall prey to electrocution, get hit by a train or face the annual deluge of floods.
"Jumbos are gentle animals who prefer a quiet atmosphere, but due to anthropogenic causes the atmosphere gets disturbed, moreover, the loss of habitat and routes through which they travel have compelled them to enter human settlements. Ultimately when intrusion takes place, they become aggressive and that's when conflict occurs," says wildlife activist Mubina Akhtar.
'Corridors are chosen by animals, not humans'
When disaster like flood hits protected areas like Kaziranga National Park (KNP), the wild animals in the area move towards a safer or elevated area crossing through highways and human settlements. Although there are some designated corridors in the national park, different animals take different routes to reach their destination.
"When the animals try to crossover from one patch of forest to another, the route between the two forests can be termed as a corridor. Human beings cannot determine animal corridors as animals choose their own path, we need to identify those patches and routes and how frequently the patches are being used by the animals. Also, it needs to be monitored if that patch has another forest link and free it from any kind of encroachment and conserve the places thereby giving a safe passage to the animals," says Akhtar.
Lack of open spaces during the annual floods force animals to move out of the park and take shelter in hillocks crossing through the highway. As the animals move out of the deluge-hit park, the risk of getting killed by poachers or getting hit by vehicles while crossing the highway increases.
Ramesh Gogoi, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve says that the wildlife corridors have been identified after several years of study considering various aspects including the regular movement of the animals.
Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong are considered as an important landscape. Most of the park lies on the floodplains of the river Brahmaputra which flows near the northern boundary, with the Karbi Anglong hills towards the southern boundary. However, the only barrier is the National Highway 37. "The Karbi Anglong Hills together with the wetlands of KNP are integral for the survival of the wildlife in this landscape," informs Gogoi.
Preserving the corridors
Based on a petition filed by an environment activist Rohit Choudhury, the Supreme Court took cognisance of the illegal activities carried out near the corridors and banned all new construction on private lands connecting KNP with Karbi Anglong Hills which form part of the nine identified animal corridors namely Amguri, Bagori, Chirang, Deosur, Harmati, Hatidandi and Kanchanjuri which falls in Nagaon district and Haldibari and Panbari in the adjoining Golaghat district.
Both SC and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) have intervened in order to protect the park as well as the landscape adjoining the park. These interventions include important directions involving a ban on mining in the Karbi Anglong Hills, traffic management on the highway and removal of man-made obstructions in the wildlife corridors, thereby freeing animal movement within the landscape.
"Since Kaziranga is a world heritage site, there has been mushrooming of business establishments along the highway. Moreover, traffics, high beams lights are also an added disturbance to the animals. So, these corridors have to remain free from human intrusion and a convenient environment is necessary for the animals to crossover. Moreover, if we don't keep such barriers away from the animal crossover, long term survival of the animals will be difficult," explained Gogoi while expressing his dismay on the increasing threat to wild animals..
Although construction was banned there has been a spurt in illegal constructions in the areas which has been demolished, informed Gogoi.
"Several measures have been taken including installation of six sensor-based cameras, issuance of challans and fixing a maximum speed limit of 40 km per hour for vehicles. Following the implementation of the measures, the chances of accident have reduced considerably," said Gogoi.
Measures should meet the purpose
As per reports, in 2021, a total of 24 animals died due to flooding at the park. Of the 24, six animals, including a rhino, three hog deer, one wild buffalo, one swamp deer drowned in flood waters in the park. While 11 animals including nine hog deer, one python and one cap langur died after being hit by vehicles on NH 37. Four animals, including a rhino and three hog deer, died due to natural causes. Three animals, including two hog deer and one swamp deer, died due to other reasons during the flood.
This year five animals were killed after being hit by vehicles while crossing the national highway. These include one leopard and three hog deer. Another hog deer, rescued during the flood died later. Three other hog deer, injured due to the floods, have been rescued by the park authorities. A python was also rescued without any injuries, said reports.
"Although several restrictions have been put into place, still animals are dying, installing sensory cameras and imposing fines on speeding vehicles are fine. But this will only add up to the Government exchequer, what about the wildlife that has perished?" questions Akhtar who is of the view that only implementing the restrictions will not serve the purpose.
She further suggests that collective efforts from the enforcement officials, the forest department, wildlife experts and NGOs should be put into force to mitigate the problem.
How feasible are highlands?
In KNP there are a total of 144 man-made highlands. Thirty-three of them were constructed in 2019 and 111 in the year 1990. As claimed by the State government highlands have been designed scientifically with provision for adequate grass and plants yielding fruits to save the wildlife of KNP and other forests and to provide them shelter during floods and reduce the animal casualty.
Speaking about highlands, Akhtar informs that though they are feasible for big, small and slow moving animals but indiscriminate construction of highlands would rather obstruct the natural water flow, thereby worsening the flood situation. "The number of highlands required and the selection of sites for the highlands should be consulted with experts before carrying out any proposed work. Often doing things haphazardly may destroy even a good initiative," says Akhtar.
Even though highland is not the solution for the animals they act as a temporary shelter for the animals. "Although these are temporary shelters for the animal but their first priority is to move towards the Karbi hills," asserts Gogoi.
Co-existence is necessary
There are several endangered species which contribute to various ecosystem services and support human well-being. When environment gets degraded at micro level it definitely affects the ecosystem.
During floods usually the focus is on big animals but there are some endangered species like monitor lizards, pangolins, insects, reptiles etc,. which also pass through the corridors. Moreover, the awareness among the people is also limited as such we often come across news that they are being killed by people. "The corridor complexes of Kaziranga and the landscape adjoining the Karbi hills which often acts as a refuge for the animals needs to be understood in a broader level. Conflict occurs when the needs and behaviour of wildlife impact negatively on humans or when human actions affect the wildlife. Awareness should be created at ground level and in a massive way so as to promote the concept of co-existence," concludes Akhtar.