By Meera Bhardwaj
In Karnataka, a biodiversity rich wildlife habitat albeit inside a “Protected Area” in the World’s Biodiversity Hotspot of Western Ghats has come up for forest clearance for a National Highway widening project. If given clearance, the Kudremukh National Park (NP) is set to lose 10.4 hectares of prime rain forests in the Kerekatte wildlife range for widening of NH-169.
It is not just the loss of habitat but widening of national highways has also resulted in increasing kills of wildlife due to speeding vehicles. In the aftermath of survey and monitoring done by Kudremukh Wildlife Division in June-July 2016, an astonishing1338 animals were recorded killed in this division in just two months. This included 295 snakes, 839 frogs, 12 mammals, 7 birds, 16 lizards, 42 other species.
These shocking details came out only after CAG’s audit observation on improper monitoring of road kills in protected areas by the PA management. So, CAG recommended alternative roads and enforcing night traffic ban inside PA
ROAD KILL OF LION TAILED MACAQUE ON NH-169
Even though India has a bare minimum 5.02 percent of its geographical area under notified Protected Areas, however, most state governments continue to divert these notified areas for linear infrastructure projects in national parks, sanctuaries, tiger reserves, conservation and community reserves. In fact, last year, the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) cleared such projects and allowed diversion of more than 1000 square kilometres in protected areas of India.
This time, the axe is likely to fall on 10.42 hectares of rich wildlife habitat in Kudremukh NP in Chikkamagaluru district while another 5.75 hectares of territorial area too has been sought from the Union Ministry of Environment and forests.
The NH-169 road widening project falls inside a pristine and contiguous rain forest area – the only habitat for endangered Lion Tailed Macaques (LTM) or Singalikas.
Scientific surveys and research papers published in international journals the last decade elaborate that the 1285 square kilometre Kudremukh forest complex is one of the largest contiguous areas of protected forest in the Western Ghats which provide and shelter a sizable population of 392 LTM individuals.
Apart from this, the NH-169 which cuts through Kerekatte range has a record number of nine (9) groups of LTM. Each group has 17-19 individuals that includes adults and sub-adults.
Further, Kudremukh is a habitat for other rare and endangered species in the amphibian and reptile families. Birds that are endemic to Western Ghats and other endangered species too are found in this part of the pristine rainforests.
With the project now before the standing committee of NBWL for forest clearances, the National Highway Authority of India has sought clearance of 10.42 hectares in the Kerekatte range and another 5.75 hectares in the Sringeri territorial forests.
The National Highway division, Shivamogga has submitted its application to MoEF for clearance of 15 hectares for widening from the existing single lane (7 metres) to two-lane (9 metres) for a stretch of 17 kilometres from 654 to 671 km section of NH-169 (also called the Solapur-Mangaluru highway).
In fact, the Executive Engineer has justified the need for forest diversion and stated, “This road renamed as Mangaluru-Shivamogga section will give connectivity to NH-206 and NH-17 from coastal areas to Malnad districts as also help pilgrims to visit five temple towns like Dharmasthala, Horanadu, etc. Since there are traffic blockades during festive times and also during auspicious days and VIP movement, it is essential to make this NH a two-lane in public interest.”
The widening project falls in a heavily forested region from S K Border to Nemmar village in Chikkamagaluru district.
According to activists in Chikkamagaluru, the single lane seven metre road which has one of the best tree canopies has provided and aided for easy movement of this arboreal species. Further, if this road is widened, more than 100 individuals found in the Kerekatte range will be adversely affected.
Since the lion tailed macaques do not cross the road during their walk but jump across roads using canopies by swinging from tree to tree, any tree felling activity poses serious consequences.
Scientific studies conducted by H N Kumara, P Ramesh Kumar and others (2018) has estimated that in Kerekatte range, there are nine groups of LTMs out of the total 21 groups in Kudremukh NP. Apart from this, the mean group size is 18.69 individuals per group with the national park sustaining a significant population of 392 lion tailed macaques.
With no demand for widening of the highway from any quarters, locals say it is better to take up repair of the existing road and also carry regular maintenance work due to heavy monsoons in this region.
WILDLIFE ROAD KILLS ON NH-169
Over the years, NH-169 has witnessed not only road kills of cattle but also lion tailed macaques on the Kudremukh-Kerekatte road. If the widening of this road gets clearance from the MoEF, activists opine more such wildlife kills on this stretch will be seen.
This road which passes through dense forests has seen the killings of other ungulate species like spotted deer and of course, many a reptile species like snakes.
According to CAG report, wildlife casualties are higher than ever before as roads dissect all forest patches rendering them to much functional fragmentation. There is no global or national statistics documenting such wildlife kills.
About 15 road kills were detected between 2011-16 which included lion tailed macaques, spotted deer, civets, barking deer, bonnet macaques and mongoose in Kudremukh National Park. These were run over by speeding vehicles in their natural habitat.
A total of 13 snakes including the endemic Malabar Pit were reported killed on a single day in Kudremukh on NH-169 on 21.9.2015. Many lesser mammals, reptiles and amphibians of which many are endemic to Western Ghats and are nocturnal in nature criss-cross these roads and many a times, end up as road-kills. None of these reptiles and amphibians were recorded in road-kills and included in the list produced to audit.
Further, any development on NH-169 will have a cascading effect on both the rain forest habitat, wildlife species and people.