Hours before sunrise on a cool February night this year, a four-year-old male leopard waited behind a bush along the National Highway 8 that cuts through the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra. As vehicles zipped passed along the high-speed motorway, it waited for a break in traffic to make it to the other side.
But traffic never ceases on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway and the leopard had no other option but to take the risk. It was the big cat’s last sprint.
As it reached the middle of the road, the leopard was stunned by the bright headlights of an incoming four-wheeler, rendering it motionless. The impact of the collision flung it several feet in the air, breaking its ribcage and legs. The driver did not stop. The leopard lay on the road, its breath becoming shallower every minute, finally stopping completely as daylight broke.
Death of a leopard does not make the news. Nor does it create hashtags on social media.
But latest data by the advocacy group, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), show that an ever-growing network of roads and railways is killing more animals than ever before, exposing the country’s sheer failure to understand wildlife and their habitats.
Besides other animals, leopards, elephants, and tigers – having the highest level of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act from 1972 – are the worst affected with man-made infrastructure cutting them off from their source of food and creating hurdles on their natural migration paths.
The result: increasing man-animal conflicts, leading to tragic consequences on both sides. According to WPSI data, show a sharp increase in deaths of protected animals in the first 10 months of 2017 as compared to previous year.
“The startling increase in the rate of habitat encroachment through such transport projects has resulted in a decrease prey base, territory and water sources for wild animals like leopards and elephants that are forced to come out closer to human habitation,” said Tito Joseph, programme coordinator, WPSI.
Wildlife experts say India’s rich wildlife biodiversity has been severely affected with approvals of road and rail projects without pass-ways for animals.
In the past few years, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has approved a series of road and rail projects in wildlife areas, including a road widening project through the Bhoramdeo wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh, a tiger corridor. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had recommended that the proposal should be rejected.
The National Board for Wildlife, with the Prime Minister at the helm, advises the Centre on framing policies and measures for conservation of wildlife and also approves projects in and around national parks and sanctuaries.
In 2015, the NBWL allowed cutting of 20,000 trees for widening the National Highway-7, that passes through the Kanha-Pench tiger corridor.
The WPSI is protesting an Uttarakhand government plan to convert a narrow road through the Corbett National Park – home to tigers and elephants – into a national highway to reduce the distance between the Garhwal and Kumaon regions.
Wildlife experts warn that if the central government does not understand the gravity of this issue, animal deaths on roads and railway tracks will go up exponentially.
“More roads and railway lines are going to be built, several existing ones widened over the coming decade, and when this happens, many of these will cut through forests and ensure that several species become endangered,” said Anish Andheria of the Wildlife Conservation Trust. He said an estimated 95% of cases of animals killed on road and rail tracks go unreported.
Andheria said elevating roads passing near wildlife corridors and protected areas, developing culverts – to allow animals to cross busy railway lines and road, and building barriers along traffic corridors are basic solutions to avoid animal deaths.
“While development is imperative, there is enough technology available to us to mitigate those roads and railway lines that pass through protected areas and corridors,” he said.
“The loss of wildlife is a serious concern, and for that, we are in the process of identifying areas where issues have taken place in the past and providing mitigation measures such as underpasses and overpasses,” said B Mukhopadhyay, general manager, environment, NHAI.
Director general public relations, railways, Anil Saxena said they have developed a whistling noise from trains that will alert the animal as it passes through protected areas.
“We have tied up with state forest departments to alert us about the movement of animals towards rail tracks so precautionary measures can be taken before an untoward event takes place,” he said.
The environment ministry has incorporated sight mitigation measures in the approval process.
A ministry official said that a large number of existing projects are being altered to ensure wildlife corridors are protected.
“Our main focus now is to protect the country’s rich biodiversity by introducing alternatives to routes passing through protected areas,” he added.
The Corbett road project is an example of this new approach, with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and NHAI proposing a flyover over the park so that wildlife is not disturbed while meeting people’s demand for a highway.
Along the Pench-Kanha highway, the NHAI had agreed to construct ducts for animals to pass through.
Even as efforts to strike a balance between infrastructure projects and wildlife is being done, the WPSI’s study has identified the top five locations prone to train accidents and top six areas for road accidents involving animals.
A ministry official said they will be taking up the matter with state governments to ensure these all areas are fitted with signboards and speed limits are maintained.
Experts say the ministry has failed to issue a notification to protect wildlife corridors based on WII guidelines even though the issue has been under discussion for the last three years. “We expect the notification to be issued in 2018,” a ministry official said when asked about the delay.
WII officials said considering India’s population expansion and need for more road and rail infra projects, issuing the notification is the most crucial step to protect wildlife corridors in the country.
“Unless this is done immediately, it will be very difficult to control such mass deaths,” said Dr GS Rawat, dean, WII.