I have in my inbox a delightful set of camera-trapped photographs, of creatures wild and rare: a leopard slinking past, prickly porcupines marching in a row, a sloth bear with a baby on its back, a tiny mouse deer tip-toeing past, and a tigress, in all her glory. The picture of the tigress with her two cubs frolicking near her is enough to lift the spirit, and for one blessed moment, the spectrum of threats that plague our wildlife fades away as one takes in the evidence of the next generation of tigers. Breeding tigers signify that the forest and prey is healthy, and that it’s safe for a tigress to raise her cubs. It implies that all hope isn’t lost in the tiger’s world.

But good news comes with a rider: the sword of Damocles hangs over the futures of these animals. Not even two miles away from where the tigress and her cubs were captured on camera is the Mannanoor-Dornal road, where no less than 1,000 vehicles ply every day. To side step a little, the photographs are from the Nagarjunasagar Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh, India’s largest tiger reserve, which saw a remarkable comeback after over 15 years of insurgency. But that’s another story. For the moment, the only issue I will concentrate on are the roads in prime tiger habitat, a grave concern all across India.

The Mannanoor-Dornal road leads to the Srisailam temple and to an expanding town with a population of about 25,000, along with buildings, bazaars and trash heaps — all in the heart of a tiger reserve. Though traffic is banned at night and there are speed breakers to slow down vehicles, irresponsible, rash driving persists, killing many wild animals. Pressure to remove the speed breakers to facilitate speedy VIP movement, and to ease the night traffic ban, is constantly increasing.

The real impact goes much beyond the road killings. The birth of a road implies the death of wilderness. When a road opens up an area, it serves as an ancillary to further development, as a result of which human footprint increases in the area. For example, a road circumventing and cutting through the Velavadar National Park (Gujarat) is proposed to be upgraded, essentially to cater to the special industrial and investment zones coming up in the vicinity. Roads fragment an already highly fragmented habitat. They break contiguity of habitat, which results in the impingement of forests and well-worn migratory paths of animals. They break tree cover, slice vegetation and causes stress to wildlife living along the roads, due to increasing disturbance. Roads give easy accessibility to timber smugglers and poachers. A recent case had poachers shoot at Gaur and Sambar from their vehicles inside sanctuaries in Karantaka!
The issue is critical: the much publicised expansion of the NH 7 through the Kanha-Pench corridor slashes across 60 km of crucial tiger habitat, isolating and dooming sections of India’s most viable source populations.

The issue is critical: the much publicised expansion of the NH 7 through the Kanha-Pench corridor slashes across 60km of crucial tiger habitat, isolating and dooming sections of India’s most viable source populations. Less publicised but equally damaging is the “six-laning” of the NH-6. Stretches on this highway form part of crucial tiger corridor, which connects the Nagzira Sanctuary and the Navegaon National Park in Maharashtra. No one bothered about mandatory clearances till a PIL was filed. By then, the work was already completed and thousands of trees had been chopped.

There is consistent pressure for the expansion of NH 37, which circumvents Kaziranga, the park with the highest tiger density in the world. An upcoming highway connecting Vijayawada with Ranchi will fragment almost all of Orissa’s tiger and elephant landscapes. A proposed road connecting North Bengal to Sikkim will cut through the pristine Neora Valley National Park and the Pangolakha sanctuary, a biodiversity hotspot, and home to no less than four big cats. With the target being to add 20 km of highway everyday, the scale is pretty nightmarish, as far as the impact on natural habitats is concerned.

The tragedy is that most roads that run through crucial wildlife habitats have viable alternatives, but do not figure in the planning of policymakers.

As for our cubs in Nagarjunasagar are concerned, will they live to see another day? Who knows? The cats are known to traverse the Mannanoor-Dornal road, and if the tigress is crushed, the cubs will die. If they survive into adulthood, they must hunt for new territory, but with a road bisecting their forest, and a town—and man—nearby, their future is precarious. India has promised the tiger a future. They survive in just about one per cent of India, and barely five percent of our land is protected as forest area. If we continue to make inroads in this space, it will be the end of wild India.

My column in The Sunday Guardian