An Asiatic wild dog, or dhole. Photo: Davidvraju/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 4.0
- India is a superpower in terms of biodiversity conservation. Maintaining this status requires constant awareness of the negative effects of human activities on nature.
- The movement of animals between populations helps maintain genetic diversity and also allows populations to avoid environmental disasters.
- Connectivity studies in central India provided the first evidence of tiger movement into high-risk habitats and proved instrumental in establishing forest corridors.
- Scientists posit that unplanned development in the area could isolate and eventually wipe out tiger populations, a phenomenon known as local extinction.
- Species that are more habitat-sensitive than tigers, such as the endangered dholes (Asian wild dogs), have a harder time moving through high-risk areas between populations.
On Independence Day 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of the “Gati Shakti” National Master Plan, an ambitious infrastructure project to support development by linking economic areas. Leveraging the most advanced technologies and tools, the project aims to consolidate the individual projects of different ministries and states into a single plan to promote seamless economic connectivity for goods and services across India.
The plan, unfortunately, left out the voiceless inhabitants of India’s wild spaces. Occupying just 2.4% of the Earth’s total land area, India is home to 8% of all wildlife species and is home to four of the planet’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.
Considering that the country also has 17% of all humans on Earth, India is a superpower in terms of biodiversity conservation. Maintaining this status requires being constantly aware of the negative effects of human activities on nature, such as habitat destruction, land use change, loss of forest cover, etc., so as not to erode the conservation gains the country has made so far.
Why are India’s wild animals where they are?
Most populations of large animals like tigers and elephants are found in the protected areas (PAs) of the Western Ghats, Central Indian Landscape, Terai-Duar Savannah and Eastern Himalayas. Most of these PAs were historically forests reserved for timber extraction, served as hunting grounds for British and Indian royalty, or were areas surrounding water reservoirs. These are places where wild animals have managed to survive – as opposed to places where they have actively thrived.
Widespread hunting and the continued loss of habitats have caused the geographic range of many species to shrink. Tigers, for example, have lost about 67% of their historic range in the past 100 years alone.
Habitat loss and degradation caused by roads, railways and power lines, as well as land use changes around PAs are reducing the amount of safe habitat available for wildlife. As a result, PAs become too small to support viable populations of large animals. According to some predictions, 29 of India’s 981 PAs are large enough to support more than 15 tigers (~1,000 km2); but only two of these PAs are able to support viable populations of more than 70 tigers (~5,000 km2).
Wildlife that disperse from smaller, isolated PAs are more likely to move outdoors and encounter high-risk locations such as highways and agricultural fields. The risk of negative human-wildlife interactions increases in these areas, with wild animals facing greater mortality risks.
Need for connectivity
The movement of individuals between populations and PAs helps maintain genetic diversity, allowing populations to circumvent environmental disasters while preventing population inbreeding. These movements also allow a constant influx of new individuals into the populations.
Implementing conservation actions where populations are safeguarded while maintaining “connectivity” between those populations requires treating multiple groups of populations in a landscape as a single entity – a metapopulation. Large infrastructure projects such as highways, mines, and hydroelectric projects can act as barriers and impede connectivity in these metapopulations.
Assessing large animal connectivity requires the use of techniques such as camera trapping, sign-based surveys, satellite telemetry, and/or genetic DNA-based laboratory techniques. They help visualize how animals navigate landscapes.
Research studies that investigated the connectivity of tiger populations in central India provided the first evidence of tigers moving long distances (~345 km) through high-risk habitats. These results were instrumental in demarcating the forest corridors that structurally linked the PAs. Scientists posit that unplanned development in the area could isolate and eventually wipe out tiger populations, a phenomenon known as local disappearance.
Areas outside PAs pose varying degrees of stress on the different species that pass through them. Species that are more habitat-sensitive than tigers, such as the endangered dholes (Asian wild dogs), have a harder time moving through high-risk areas between populations.
A study from central India showed that dholes used the Kanha-Pench forest corridor in Madhya Pradesh sparingly, even though the area is a critical travel corridor for tigers. Similarly, the movement of elephants outside of PA boundaries in northeast India continues to be impacted by their interactions with people residing in these landscape mosaics.
More recently, a dhole study has set a framework for examining connectivity across India. In doing so, the researchers identified highways dhole movement, important metapopulations and critical dhole ‘conservation landscapes’ in the country. Using such approaches to facilitate connectivity of dholes and other forest-sensitive and threatened species will require special effort from a management perspective.
The path to follow
India has the second largest road network in the world and plans to increase the number of national highways under the giant project “Bharatmala Pariyojana”. Establishing a national wildlife mortality reporting system around national highways and railroads, as in other countries where mass animal migrations occur, would help monitor mortality and better plan future infrastructure and transport projects.
Current projects must urgently undertake mitigation measures (speed bumps, underpasses/overpasses, etc.) that protect both people and wildlife. Recognizing the need for animals to move outside PAs and acknowledging the utility of shared human-wildlife landscapes in proposed infrastructure development projects can be the first steps towards more planned and sustainable development. for everything from India.
India’s future as a global superpower hinges on cultivating scientific temperament and the country’s cultural relationship with wild animals. For a young and dynamic India aspiring to economic growth and a good quality of life, the real success of a “Gati Shakti” project lies in the achievement of objectives that target free circulation for all inhabitants, including wild animals of the country. This will help cement India’s overall growth for decades to come.
Ryan G. Rodrigues is an independent researcher working on landscape ecology, conservation genetics, and carnivore biology. Arjun Srivathsa is a DST INSPIRE Campus Fellow at National Center for Biological Sciences-TIFR, Bengaluru, working on the conservation ecology of Indian large carnivores.