When the Tiger Couldn’t Cross The Highway

On a regular basis, we are losing tigers and other species in roadkills. While we ape the west in building new infrastructure, we ignore how the west also factors in ‘animal crossings’ in their development plans.

Planet Outlook
Ananda Banerjee - June 26, 2021
When the Tiger Couldn’t Cross The Highway

Tiger cub roadkill, Ghughuntti range, Umaria

Last week, a speeding vehicle on National Highway NH-43 mowed down a tiger cub. The incident occurred in the Ghunghutti range, Umaria forest division, Madhya Pradesh. This is not the first tiger found in roadkill this year. In January, a tiger met with a similar fate while crossing the Ramnagar-Nainital highway, Uttarakhand. In the recent past videos circulated on social media platforms showing tigers jumping over crash barriers or limping to cross highways have gone viral. A cursory search points to such tragic incidents year after year. The annual tiger mortality figures surpass the 100 mark with collisions on road and rail tracks figuring prominently alongside poaching incidents. This year the mortality numbers are on the higher side. Over fifty tiger deaths have been recorded in the first five months of 2021.

Just not highways, rail tracks have caused more tiger deaths this year. Last month, a tigress was run over by an express train in Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh. In March, a tiger cub was found dead on the railway track in Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh.  In the same month, a 12-month-old male tiger cub was run over in Pindkepar forest by a speeding freight train. This is the fifth tiger death in this section of Maharashtra in recent times. Along with tigers, several leopards, sloth bears and other wildlife kills have been recorded on the tracks between 2008 and 2018 period by wildlife conservation agencies. In just one year, between March 2016 and March 2017, Madhya Pradesh recorded 35 tiger deaths on train tracks. And between 2016 and 2018, according to wildlife experts’ 32,000 animals were killed on railway tracks in India. 

 Tiger roadkill on NH 6 outside Bor Tiger Reserve

Why are tigers, elephants and other wildlife getting killed on road and railway tracks every year? Linear infrastructure (road and railway) is a necessity of modern human society but it slices up pristine forest habitats into several fragments which in turn gets fragmented by other needs like mining, dams, industry and others. We, the urban society, live with a preconceived notion that wildlife is only found in National Parks and Sanctuaries. On the contrary, species share the same space with us and do not understand the fences or boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. And wildlife needs to move in search of food, space and a partner to carry on with the cycle of life. Everything can’t be boxed into human-defined nature reserves. Nature does not work that way. Animals too have a right of passage, rights which we have conveniently ignored.

Today, a less understood fact is a substantial per cent of the tiger, leopard and elephant population are found outside protected nature reserves. Elephants need to move, not a single forest patch can sustain the needs of these giants for long. As they move from one forest to the other they also carry out important ecosystem functions, for example, they also act as pollinating agents dispersing seeds in far off places.

As habitats across the country shrink it is inadvertently bringing wildlife in proximity to humans. Turning coexistence into conflict. According to Wildlife Conservation Trust, an NGO, the vast majority of wild animals, 99 per cent of species dying on roads are never recorded. Around twenty-four thousand kilometres of roads pass through India’s Protected Areas (PAs), imperilling the country’s endangered wildlife indiscriminately. Large charismatic mammal deaths such as tigers and elephants dying are recorded but thousands of rare, endangered species of birds, amphibians, small mammals and reptile mortalities go unrecorded. There is scant data available about other equally rare, endangered and threatened species of amphibians, birds (owls, nightjars, horned larks) and reptiles (king cobra, python) that die in thousands. Mortalities of other endangered species of mammals such as leopard, sloth bears, wild dogs, wolves, jackals, hyena, Indian fox, honey badgers, otters, langur monkeys as well as herbivores such as Indian gaur, spotted deer, barking deer, nilgai and sambar go unrecorded.

India road-building exercise has gathered steam in recent years under the leadership of Nitin Gadkari, Union Road Transport and Highways Minister. The daily average of highway construction has increased from 14km per day to 27km per day. The country already boasts of the second largest road network after the United States and political leaders are often seen to quote the famous US John F Kennedy President, "American roads are not good because America is rich, but America is rich because American roads are good." Currently, India accounts for the highest number of road accidents in the world.

We all love to cruise on ‘smooth’ highways, and the minister is hard at work to fulfil our dreams. He has positioned linear infrastructure as ‘smart transportation’ – be it road, railway or waterways. However, his claim of green, smart, pollution-free highways falls way short when looked through - ‘living in harmony with nature’ - lens. The conflict between roads— the most visible aspect of India’s growing physical infrastructure—and wildlife has intensified in recent years.

The issue of roadkills is omnipresent throughout the world. I saw several White-tailed deer roadkills on road trips in North America. But I also saw how authorities are trying their best to mitigate the problem. They are doing it by constructing overpass, underpass, tunnels and other structures for species to migrate. Visuals of wildlife-friendly bridges in Banff National Park, Canada to the Christmas island crab bridge in Australia have been circulated widely to showcase how we can design structures to facilitate wildlife to move from one forest patch to another or for slow-moving species that live in and around human habitations. Today, a toad (or a frog) is unable to hop its way across the highway. Reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife are crossing city roads more safely these days and avoiding becoming roadkill – at least in areas where wildlife tunnels have been built below the road surface.

 
Wildlife overpass at Banff National Park, Canada



Christmas island crab bridge, Australia


India’s longest wildlife-friendly structure is on NH 44 and it has got a lot of recent favourable press coverage after remote camera traps revealed how tigers, leopards, bears, wild dogs, deer and other forest denizens are using the five underpasses and four minor bridges across the forest stretch, popularly known as the Pench –Kanha forest corridor - named after the two famed tiger reserves in the vicinity. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which monitors these structures have documented 21 wildlife species using the passages between two forest patches in central India. 11 different tigers are frequently passing through them. And there is a staggering 193 per cent increase in underpass usage from 2019 to 2020.

Tiger using the animal underpass, NH44 

Arial view of NH 44, a section of  Kanha-Pench Corridor

Arial view of NH 44, a section of  Kanha-Pench Corridor


These structures came after an arduous court battle between conservationists and government authorities for close to a decade. The highway expansion was stuck for eight long years. In 2008, the WII approached the apex court for a realignment of the road project. The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) refused to agree. Later, NHAI also scaled down its own proposals and refused the mitigation plans proposed by WII. After several flip-flops, political intervention and litigation a much-scaled down project (a reduction of 90 per cent from the original plan) is now what we see. So imagine what could have been the numbers recorded on camera traps!

Failure to understand migration patterns is taking a toll on wildlife. The frequency of wildlife roadkill shows the extent of human encroachment into wildlife habitats. These areas are originally the animals’ natural crossing paths and they have been moving around for generations, before we arrived and destroy their habitat, leaving them with nowhere else to go.

As highways get broader and better, making it easier for us to travel, connect and move things around, they have also become a hazard for the planet’s smaller denizens. Species cannot cope with the changing landscape, especially fragmentation and loss of habitat, linear barriers such as roads, railways, power lines, and pipelines being one of the potential causes for the amphibian decline. This rampant expansion of road network has its consequences on wildlife through mortality and creating barriers for movement. We need to understand this in order to mainstream conservation efforts in large-scale infrastructure developmental programmes.

 

‘Planet Nama’ is an exploration of our impact on the natural environment