DEHRADUN: Findings of a recent report by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun can help guide the implementation of mitigation measures in highways passing through ecologically-sensitive habitats across India to make it more accessible for wildlife.
In the report released last month titled 'Monitoring of Animal Underpasses on National Highway 44 Passing Through Pench Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra', it was stated that the underpass in Pench Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra witnessed over 5400 instances of wild animals using the crossing.
Dr Bilal Habib, one of the scientists who was involved in the project said, "The initial results from the monitoring of mitigation measures on NH 7 (now 44) are very promising.
The monitoring exercise has shown that these crossing structures are contributing to enhancing the permeability of the landscape. Such mitigation measures, if adopted, would help defragment fragmented landscapes.
Learnings from our monitoring exercise can help guide the implementation of such mitigation measures in highways passing through ecologically-sensitive habitats across India to make them permeable for wildlife.
These findings also add new dimensions to the debate on conservation versus development."
The findings of the report is said to be important in terms of reducing anthropogenic pressure in forests and reducing human-animal conflict.
Authored by Dr Bilal Habib and Dr YV Jhala, director of the WII, the 10-month monitoring (March-December 2019) covered a total of nine underpasses stretching 16 kms on the National Highway-44 and were done using camera traps.
A total of 18 species of wild animals including tiger, deer, bear, leopard, porcupine, and others used the underpass 5450 times.
To put things in perspective, the experts involved in the project told The New Indian Express that in the next five to six years, a total of 50,000 kms of road construction will take place with around 20,000 kms of it passing through the forests.
They added that the construction of such underpasses can minimize accidents and keep human-animal conflicts to a minimum.
According to the Union Railway Minister, till July 2019, as many as 35,732 animals were killed on the railway tracks in the last four years while 2,330 elephants were killed from 2013-2019 across the country.
On average, the country also witnesses 1.5 lakh road accidents resulting in 5 lakh human casualties.
While preparing the report, a total of 1,26,532 wild, domestic, and feral animals, and humans were captured on camera.
A total of 18 different wild species were captured during the monitoring.
These include wild ungulates such as spotted deer, sambar, gaur, nilgai and wild pig, large and medium-sized carnivores like tiger, leopard, sloth bear, jackal and wild dog, small mammals including hare, jungle cat, mongoose, common palm civet, porcupine, rusty-spotted cat, and small Indian civet.
Monitor lizards were also captured using the structures on two occasions.
A total of 89 tiger crossings were recorded from six of the nine crossing structures.
11 tigers including 5 males, 3 females, and 3 sub adults were identified using the crossing structures.
Camera trapping and continuous monitoring were carried out on four minor bridges (MNBs) and five animal underpasses (AUPs).
Reducing human-wildlife conflict deaths
Wildlife experts suggested that some of the measures that can be taken to reduce human and animal deaths are,
- by way of levelling/ terracing/ merging with surroundings,
- planting of shrubs/ grass, daily patrolling by forest guards,
- weekly patrolling by the round officers and fortnightly by the concerned range officers,
- weekly cleaning of the underpasses,
- to close approaches to the underpasses from the main highway or planting of thorny bushes (e g., Zizyphus),
- planting of bushes near the guide walls,
- to create dirt roads from the forest for monitoring, patrolling and maintenance purposes,
- creation of trails to enhance use by wildlife may be taken up and habitat enrichment measures such as placement of logs and branches in addition to increasing vegetative cover
- a monthly/bi-monthly routine for maintenance works by the highway agency and the concerned range officers informed accordingly with such activities should be restricted to daytime (10 am – 3 pm) and completed with minimal machinery to avoid disturbance to wildlife,
- simple signboards may be put up at the beginning of the forest stretches informing the public about the underpasses.
They may include messages about the highway stretch being animal corridors, do’s and don’t’s like - no littering, no stopping, and feeding macaques/langurs.
A maximum of 2-3 colours (preferably only green and black), with silhouettes of representative animals and minimal text can be used on these boards to increase its visibility. Reflective material (radium) may be used.
Pointing out that disposal of waste under the crossing structures by passing trucks that transport poultry, livestock, and fish is a major issue, the experts added that the waste attracts feral dogs and wild pigs, and could also be a source of diseases.
"Adequate enforcement to catch and fine culprits in association with highway agencies could help reduce the problem," the report said.
Interestingly, the Uttarakhand high court in the year 2018, keeping in mind the death of animals in road and rail accidents had directed the union ministry of railways and the state forest department to use 'Satellite Space Navigation System' to track the movement of elephants, more particularly, in the immediate vicinity of the railway tracks to identify the path taken by elephants in order to map the corridor, and also mentioned that the trains should run at the lowest speed of 25 km/hour while passing through these identified paths.