Mains Paper 3: Environment | Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment
From UPSC perspectives, the following things are important
Prelims Level: Major Highways passing through Conservation areas.
Mains Level: Importance of mitigation strategies to avoid loss of Wildlife in Road Accidents.
Habitat Loss – a serious implication
- Wild animals are vulnerable to vehicular traffic passing through forests, especially at night when, blinded by bright headlights, even swift species like cats freeze.
- Over time, as animals learn to avoid roads, busy multilane highways become barriers that hinder wildlife movement, fragment populations, and restrict gene flow.
- By blocking access to potential habitats, roads, railway lines and irrigation canals act as a major contributor to habitat loss.
- The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the apex advisory body on all wildlife-related matters said no to new roads through protected forests in 2013.
- But it was open to the widening of existing roads with adequate mitigation measures irrespective of the cost, only if alternative alignments were not available. The government accepted this as policy in December 2014.
- In February 2018, the NBWL made it mandatory for every road/rail project proposal to include a wildlife passage plan as per guidelines framed by Wildlife Institute of India.
- However, features like underpasses are unlikely to suffice in dense wildlife-rich forests where too many animals compete for space.
Learning from Global examples
- Roads have destroyed tropical rainforests in South America, Asia and Africa.
- Though under severe pressure, the Amazon rainforests still hold over 1 million sq km of no-go zones, including national parks and territories for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.
- In North America and Europe, where the road network is extensive and wildlife density lower, wildlife passageways are more common. These features are seen in Malaysia and Kenya as well.
- In many protected areas such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, night traffic is prohibited.
- In July 2008, Karnataka closed night traffic on the Mysore-Mananthavadi highway passing through Nagarhole Tiger Reserve.
- This and reports of frequent roadkills in Bandipur, prompted the Chamarajnagar district administration in June 2009 to restrict vehicular traffic between 9 pm and 6 am on two national highways passing through the reserve.
- Protests by Kerala however led to the order being withdrawn.After a PIL was filed, Karnataka High Court restored the ban on night traffic in July 2009 with reasonable restrictions.
- The state’s night traffic ban was subsequently replicated in Tamil Nadu (Mudumalai Tiger Reserve) and Gujarat (Gir National Park).
NTCA report seeking status-quo
- After the Bandipur matter went to the Supreme Court, the CMs of the concerned states agreed with an expert panel’s recommendation to maintain status quo.
- The expert committee included the Road Transport Secretary, with a representative each from Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
- In March the NTCA recommended maintaining status quo to continue with the existing restrictions over which all parties agreed.
- The report also included measures for mitigation strategies.
Limitations of the New Plan
- The proposal included elevating the road over four 1-km stretches to provide wildlife passageways below, and fencing the entire highway passing through the reserve with 8-foot-high steel wire barriers.
- While this may work for wandering elephants if the passageways cover their traditional routes, for territorial animals, just four openings in a 24-km stretch may not suffice.
- But big cats will use its immediate passageway (for hunting) to get over to its neighborhood territory split by the Highway.
- The argument for opening up and widening the restricted road is that the alternative road is 30 km longer, and apparently passes through hilly terrain — increasing travel time, fuel consumption, and pollution.
- So fencing the Highway is the only viable option available.
- The question is whether a 30-km detour to safeguard one of India’s most wildlife-rich forests is an unaffordable economic burden or a minor concession necessary in the national interest.
- This is a concern for all conservation areas intersected by major highways.
- A unified mitigation strategy needs to be developed to avoid the loss of habitation and subsequent deaths of wildlife in road accidents.