The Cat, the Corridor and the Canal

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An illegal canal threatens to truncate tiger territory in Ranthambore. Cara Tejpal reports

Left in the lurch: The canal, which was inaugurated by NN Meena, will cut off tigers from their natural environs
Left in the lurch: The canal, which was inaugurated by NN Meena, will cut off tigers from their natural environs, Photo: Dharmendra Khandal

IN A far corner of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, away from the excited tourists and the numerous luxury resorts, an artery is slowly being severed. The illegal construction of a canal to connect the Kushalipura nalla to the Mansarovar dam threatens to destroy the crucial corridor that links the Ranthambore National Park to the 128 sq km large Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary. These two Protected Areas, along with the 674 sq km Keladevi Sanctuary, form the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. If the canal is completed in its present form, the corridor will be wiped out, wild animal movements stalled and the genetic integrity of tigers in the region will be jeopardised.

Photo: AFP

One of India’s vital tiger habitats, Ranthambore will suffer a setback to its plan to link its source population of tigers with outlying forests if this corridor is snapped. The two Protected Areas run parallel to each other for a distance of about 8-9 km but are already separated by the road linking Sawai Madhopur to Chambal. Add to that the presence of three villages in the immediate vicinity and high hills on both sides of the road and it becomes obvious that the corridor that looks effective on map is in reality only partly functional. Essentially, wild animals can only cross from the sanctuary to the national park and vice-versa at two points, the most used of which will be obliterated by the construction of the canal.

NGO Tiger Watch came to know that exforest minister and local MPNamo Narain Meena laid the foundation stone for the project in April, after which work started in earnest. TEHELKA’s repeated attempts to get in touch with Meena proved futile.

National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) member PK Sen visited the site in mid-May and found that close to 600 Dhonk trees had been felled and a deep trench more than 1.5 km long had been dug through the fragile forest. Debris from the excavation work had been dumped in the national park and sanctuary areas. This rubble has a high content of lime soil, which is hazardous to the topsoil of the region and has thus devastated the growth of saplings and shrubs.

Photo: Dharmendra Khandal

In an October meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, the Rajasthan government sought clearance for the project and requested the acquisition of 1.99 hectares of forest land for the purpose. This proposal had already been rejected twice in 2005-06.

Conservationist and Standing Committee member Prerna Bindra’s objections were clearly noted in the minutes of the October meeting. She mentioned that the Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary, barren for years, was now showing signs of the presence of a breeding tigress and that the corridor must be protected at all cost. “If the linkage is broken, the tigers have a doubtful future,” she said. “There should be accountability for bypassing the National Board for Wildlife. The construction started even though the project had been rerejected by the committee, not once but twice and without the mandatory permissions.”

It is purported that the diversion of water is required to provide five villages with an additional supply of 77 million cubic feet. Yet experts claim this number is inflated and the villages are already sufficiently water-fed. The construction of the canal will also lead to the expansion of the Mansarovar lake and the ultimate submersion of the surrounding forests.

On the other hand, the areas that the Kushalipura nalla currently passes through will dry up if the project is completed, as the nalla replenishes numerous wells in areas such as Bhairopura, Lakshmipura, Sawai Ganj and Badal Ganj.

The excavation work is in violation of both the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act, yet it appears that the government, instead of penalising those who allowed the construction to commence without any clearances, is hoping to push the project through on the grounds that work has already begun.

The nalla, about 10 m deep and 12 m wide, will be a sure death trap for wildlife, including caracal, chital, sloth bear and tiger. The government has proposed partly covering the top to facilitate animal movement, but this will have little benefit. In all likelihood, the ‘cover’ will have no topsoil or actual vegetation cover to encourage free movement of animals.

Tiger Watch field biologist Dharmendra Khandal reiterates the importance of the sanctuary for tiger conservation. “Currently, the presence of six adult tigers and four cubs has been recorded in the sanctuary. Of these, four adult tigers and two cubs are known to be resident.” He adds that after valiant conservation efforts to revive the once degraded Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary, a pair of cubs has been born here for the first time in over two decades.

While the government has told the NTCA that work has been stalled for now, vested interests continue to pressure the state to push the project through. In an age of rapidly fragmenting forests and isolated wildlife population, India cannot afford to be cavalier in environmental decision- making and enforcement, especially where it concerns critical tiger habitats, or all we will be left with is paper tiger laws and no real tigers.

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