Transportation Through Protected Reserves in India and Its Consequences

Published on:
by Jithin Joshey Kulatharayil
Image of a young tusker crossing NH 766 in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, India
Image of a young tusker crossing NH 766 in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, India. Image courtesy: IANS

Whether they like it or not, the protection of biodiversity is at the top of the agenda for world leaders now, as climate change-related issues, which are mostly driven by an exploding human population and the lack of effective policy to both educate the public and create meaningful economic solutions to address systemic change, are wreaking havoc across the globe.

India is one of the world's largest megadiverse countries, home to a huge variety of species. Sadly, some are on the verge of extinction. It is popular worldwide for its tiger population and rich biodiversity areas in general. People from all over the country and elsewhere flock to its national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves, and protected areas after the monsoons — the annual rainfall in the country from June to August. It is a time when they get to witness the grandeur and flourishing wildlife of this gigantic, diverse country.

However, the thriving wildlife in India has been threatened by its own people and their desire for development, which is entirely unsustainable. If you say that the more people there are on this planet, the more trouble we create, then you are absolutely right. Not only in India but also across the world, people forget to thank and credit nature for its essential role as the foundation of prosperity, and this has been so for many decades. If they keep overlooking sustainability and climate change, nature will retaliate. We are already witnessing this in the form of floods, landslides, wildfires, etc., in many countries.

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National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Tiger Reserves in India

A national park (NP) is a place where animals and other species are protected in their natural habitats. People are strictly prohibited from entering deep into NPs, but they can go on wildlife safaris that take them to explore the fringes of the NPs.

Even allowing wildlife safaris and exploration within the protected areas disturbs the animals, as most people lack knowledge of how to behave within the area. The number of tourists visiting the NPs has also exploded over the years, adding to more concerns.

Hunting, poaching, commercial, and agricultural activities are strictly banned in NPs. However, traditional forest dwellers can live within the parks, according to the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, and depend on forest produce for their livelihood. There are around 108 NPs in India as of June 2023, and the number may increase based on state and central government laws. Flora, fauna, landscapes, and historical objects are also protected inside NPs. Click here to know about NPs.

Meanwhile, wildlife sanctuaries provide protection for animals and their natural habitats. The main objective of these sanctuaries is to protect the population of wildlife and sustain their habitat. Restrictions are lower compared to NPs. There are 567 wildlife sanctuaries in India as of 2023. Human activities are allowed within the sanctuaries to a certain limit. To learn more click here

A tiger reserve is specially dedicated to protecting big striped cats. However, that does not mean you can only see tigers in the reserves. There are many species, including elephants, dogs, crocodiles, bears, monkeys, birds, leopards, etc. There are 53 tiger reserves spread across the country as of 2023. Click here to learn more.

National and State Highways Passing through Forests

India's road network is one of the largest in the world, and is second only to the US in terms of total road infrastructure. According to the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways in India, approximately 100 National Highways pass through forest areas, including NPs, wildlife sanctuaries, and eco-sensitive zones (ESZs).

Accidents are common on these roads, especially at turns where monkeys sometimes gather in groups that cannot be seen by speeding cars and bikes passing through the forest. Although speed breakers are present, they are insufficient to reduce the number of fatalities. In 2022, a goods lorry hit a rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, where more than 1000 Indian one-horned rhinoceroses call home—a species facing extinction.

Adding to the misery is the behaviour of people travelling through the forests with little knowledge of how wild animals behave or get disturbed.

Elephants are called ecosystem engineers because they help disperse seeds that are vital for forest regeneration. This is well illustrated in the movie (or, of course, the original Rudyard Kipling book) Jungle Book, where Bagheera, the panther, tells Mowgli, the man-cub, to bow down in front of the elephants as a mark of reverence.

However, some travellers provoke these same elephants for photos and videos to create Instagram reels without realising the distress they cause these gentle giants. The perpetrators might escape safely from an elephant attack, but its impact is felt by someone who travels or uses the same roads next time, as elephants are known for taking revenge on people who hurt them.

Meanwhile, there have been numerous incidents of people being trampled to death while attempting such audacious moves for likes and attention on social media platforms. Understanding what to do and what not to do when passing through a forest area is crucial.

The Government of India has introduced various programmes to prevent disturbances caused to wildlife and facilitate the safe passage of animals through roads. These measures include constructing culverts, underpasses, overpasses (ecoducts), viaducts, tunnels, guard walls, fencing, vegetative barriers, anti-light glare measures, sound barriers, and so on.

However, the problem lies in the vastness of India, and these initiatives have yet to reach many of the more remote places. In the meantime, construction activities take several years to complete and involve the movement of heavy equipment, labour, and other materials through the forest, which again disturbs the wildlife.

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Construction of Railway Lines Inside Forest

Most of the railway lines in the states of Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal, and Odisha in the northeastern part of India run through forest reserves, causing hindrance to the passage of wild animals, particularly elephants.

Elephants being run over by speeding trains is common in this part of the country. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in India stated that 186 elephants died on railway tracks between 2009 and 2020-21, including calves and juveniles, causing mental destruction to others in the herd who survived the mishap. It's not just elephants that lose their lives on the railway tracks; other animals like gaur, sambar, leopards, and tigers are also struck by speeding trains.

According to India's environment ministry, a solution to this problem is to identify locations where the chances of such incidents are higher. These locations are called “sensitive points”, through which the elephants pass.

The ministry suggests constructing ramps over the tracks for them to cross at these points. Many elephants have lost their lives due to steep embankments and stones along the tracks that affect their smooth passage. 

Additionally, cutting vegetation that blocks loco pilots' view should also be done to avert accidents. Moreover, the forest department and the railways should work in tandem, setting aside their egos. The railways should also inform passengers not to throw away food waste while travelling, as it falls directly on the tracks and attracts animals.

Also, the railways could introduce technologies that detect objects or animals standing a particular distance away from the trains. That will help the loco pilots immediately stop the train when there is urgency to do so. Featured Article: Australia to Begin Mandatory Climate Reporting in 2024  

Future of India’s Forest

India's forest cover is dwindling at a faster rate due to its huge population encroaching on wildlife and turning precious nature into urban habitats. Since the self-centred approach of Indians continues to increase, the future remains grim for wildlife protection in the country. As the population increases, more infrastructure needs to be put in place for the people, and that should not be at the expense of wildlife. The existence of the country’s forest cover will depend on how effectively these challenges are dealt with.

Only a collective and massive effort by its people and the government could prove effective in preventing the loss of nature. The Government of India should also invest a huge sum of money into awareness drives regarding wildlife protection. Children should be taught in schools and homes to preserve nature. Sustainability should be a top priority for any project that comes to India's lawmakers' tables.

More than anything the mindset of Indians should change when it comes to protecting our precious nature. This fundamental change in mindset alone can have a huge impact positively on the forest and its regeneration.    

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