Let the tiger cross the road… and multiply

Lone ranger A young tiger ventures out of Tadoba; safe passage is vital for gene dispersal, Photo: Atul Dhamankar

IMAGINE LIFE on a small island that nobody can leave or visit, where residents marry among themselves for all time to come. The closest we got to it in human history was not by compulsion but by choice. In the early 18th century, a small population of the Amish people left what is Germany today and settled in Pennsylvania. Since they refused to marry outside their community, the entire Amish population in the US can be traced back to 200-odd immigrants. The result is a host of rare inherited disorders, including several forms of deformity and high child mortality.

What the Amish and other conservative communities have deliberately brought upon themselves, wild animals are suffering without a choice. As the human world developed to today’s global village with literally unlimited connectivity and infinite options for selecting partners, wild turfs shrank rapidly, forests became islands and still smaller islands surrounded by civilisation. This has fragmented wildlife populations into many small isolated groups that must breed within families.

In India, too, massive deforestation that peaked in the past century has cut off forest landscapes and wildlife populations. National parks and sanctuaries cover only 5 percent of our geographical area. This is less than half the global average of 12 percent. But even within that 5 percent, most of our wild populations survive in small pockets of protected areas. The great forests that thrived over hundreds of miles along the Himalayan foothills are now hopelessly broken. Much of the wilderness in the Northeast has also suffered the same fate. The rainforests of the Western Ghats are probably the best tract of continuous wilderness that still survives.

It is the once-impregnable forests of central India — the land of the Gonds — and their rapid disintegration that perhaps poses the greatest challenge to conservation in India. This forest landscape stretches from Maharashtra all the way to Jharkhand and can support some of the largest wild populations and ensure gene flow across the breadth of the country. But for that, sanctuaries and national parks in this and other surviving forest landscapes must stay connected through forested areas known as wildlife corridors.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has underlined the need for protecting key areas outside our protected areas network while making public the proposed parameters for identifying inviolate forests last week. The process began in September 2011 when a Group of Ministers headed by then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee suggested that “all forests which can never be regenerated to the desired quality should be protected”. While the same Group of Ministers struck down then environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s “go, no-go” concept, it allowed the MoEF to identify inviolate forests that, in effect, would be “no-go”.

An expert panel set up by the ministry last March proposed an automatic inviolate tag for a range of forest areas: protected areas and a one-kilometre-ring around protected areas, compact patches of very dense forests, last remnants of forest types found in less than 50 sq km area in all in the country, areas located in direct draining catchment of important perennial streams that serve as water sources or feed hydropower projects, areas within 250 m of perennial rivers and important wetlands.

Other forested areas will be scored on a scale of 100 against each of the six parameters — forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, forest cover, landscape integrity and hydrological value — proposed by the MoEF panel and areas with a score of 70 and above will be considered inviolate. Once these parameters are finalised, the ministry will rate forest areas on a national grid of 1km x 1km units and mining will be barred if inviolate units cover more than half of a mining block.

IT WILL not be easy. The existing and proposed mining blocks are spread all over India, particularly the central Indian forest landscape that has some of our most prominent tiger reserves such as Palamu, Achanakmar, Kanha, Pench, Tadoba, Melghat and Satpura.

A number of highways — the most controversial of them all, the NH-7, runs through the Pench-Kanha landscape — also threaten to sever these protected areas from one another. Already, there is intense pressure on the MoEF from both the coal ministry and National Highway Authority of India to fast track green clearances.

At a time when the green ministry seems to be making concessions under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office by allowing work to commence in non-forest segments of projects before forest clearances are obtained, it can draw strength from two recent papers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Zoologists Sandeep Sharma and Trishna Dutta and others have published two studies on the genetic diversity of tigers and leopards in the Satpura-Maikal region, the western half (Satpura-Melghat-Pench-Kanha) of the central Indian forest landscape.

For tigers, the study found two genetic populations — caused by partial isolation — in the area but there was no sharp boundary between the two. It concluded that the overall tiger population in the Satpura–Maikal landscape had not significantly suffered from inbreeding, and genetic subdivision was low between tiger reserves that were connected with forest corridors.

For leopards, which are more adaptive in nature than tigers, the study found two genetic subpopulations with indications of four developing subdivisions, indicating growing isolation. The results, it noted, “are rather surprising and indicate the role of habitat fragmentation in increasing genetic isolation”. The Satpura leopard population was found to be more distinct than the rest, indicating possible obstacles to gene flow through the Satpura-Melghat and Satpura-Pench corridors.

The studies also identified a number of migrant animals in most parts of the landscape, which underlined how vital the corridors are for maintaining regular genetic exchange. Elaborating on its parameter of landscape integrity, the MoEF panel rightly suggested that all areas located within an unfragmented landscape of 100 sq km and above will qualify for the inviolate status. But it is one thing to acknowledge the corridor value of an area, quite another to protect its integrity on the ground.

In 2005, the Wildlife Trust of India — in collaboration with 10 state forest departments — came up with a comprehensive list of 88 elephant corridors of India. Three corridors of high conservation priority between Corbett and the Ramnagar forest division on two sides of the Kosi river were identified as Mohan- Kumaria, Dhangadi-Sunderkhal and Ringora-Bijrani. Several other expert panels have also identified the same corridors as absolutely crucial for movements of all wildlife, including the tiger.

Eight years later, a fenced-up government establishment — Indian Medical Pharmaceutical Co Ltd — still sits on the Mohan-Kumaria corridor, while a sprawling encroachment of a village — Sunderkhal — settled by former chief minister ND Tiwari and a plush wildlife resort — Infinity — which runs a green NGO, continue to block the other two.