Forest interrupted

Making a case
Last Updated 19 September 2016, 18:28 IST

The proposed Nanjangud-Nilambur railway track would affect the ecology of the region, disturbing the spatial distribution of grazing resources and movement of wild animals, opines Arun Venkataraman

Some recent reports that the proposed Nanjangud-Nilambur railway track is being revived is the worst recurring nightmare that a conservationist can suffer. In a Kafkaesque scenario, the railway line will pass through the core area of Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park, disastrously dividing this landscape into two fragments and precipitating an ecological catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

Bandipur — along with the contiguous Nagarhole Tiger Reserve — provides 1,517 sq km of wildlife habitat and is part of a larger complex of tiger reserves and protected areas which include the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

While the project still needs several approvals from national and state agencies, the mere concept of the project is worrisome. The proposed railway line will pass through Chikkabaragi Eco-sensitive Zone and the Hediyala and the Moolehole ranges which are ‘inviolate’ core areas. This involves a track alignment of 22 km, out of which nearly 12 km pass through Bandipur and the remaining 10 km through the adjoining Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala.

Population growth is good

The track will nullify decades of conservation efforts, which have finally resulted in improved wildlife numbers. According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority, in its 2014 nation-wide population estimate, the entire complex is thought to hold a mean number of 570 Bengal tigers of which Bandipur and Nagarhole have 221 tigers. This accounts for more than a quarter of tigers within the country and is now considered the single largest population of tigers in the world. Given the precarious status of tigers elsewhere in Asia with several populations recently going extinct or on the brink of extinction, the importance of this population needs little justification.

In addition, both reserves are a part of the Mysore Elephant Reserve and, according to the 2012 estimate carried out by the State government and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, have a mean number of 3,017 Asian elephants — which is 35% of the total number of elephants found in the contiguous Brahmagiri-Nilgiri and 14% of the national numbers. The reserves also hold nationally and internationally significant populations of other threatened and protected species such as the gaur and the Asiatic dhole, not to mention several endemic species of birds found along the Western Ghats.

The vegetation types here include Southern Tropical Dry, Deciduous and South Tropical Moist Deciduous Forests. They are characterised by intermittent patches of grasslands supporting a high ungulate biomass. These grasslands play a vital role in keeping mega-herbivores such as elephants and gaur, dispersed across the park. During the dry season from March to May, when water is scarce across most of the reserve, a large population of elephants and gaurs occupies the moist deciduous forests in Wayanad and the grass-laden banks of the Kabini reservoir nestled between Bandipur and Nagarhole. Large sections of the park are bone dry and devoid of mega-herbivores.

With the advent of pre-monsoon, the entire area is transformed into a verdant pastureland. The change is sudden, with grasses flush in the area with a mere hint of increase in moisture in winds coming from the west! This flush moves down a northeast to southwest rainfall gradient. Young grass tends to be far more nutritious and the mega-herbivores move along the gradient seeking this.

The need for making up for reduced nutrition in the dry season is so intense that when one encounters elephants grazing in these flushes, they are seldom disturbed even if one were to drive into the midst of a herd.

Impediments on the way

If one were to assume that an overland track is eventually conceived and built, such dispersal of mega-herbivores would be seriously impeded. Raising sections of the track to permit movement through underpasses would require an intimate knowledge of the spatial distribution of grazing resources that fluctuate drastically from year to year. Herbivores take the shortest distance to reach resource to optimise energy usage, and this would lead to crossing of tracks and hence, high collision rates with trains. The impacts of an extended construction period would also be highly significant.

A large number of other threatened and protected mammals such tigers, leopards, Asiatic dholes and sloth bears live in the area and it’s illogical to expect that all of them will restrict themselves to the usage of underpasses. Even with regulation of speeds and other restrictions on train passage we are likely to see colossal mortality through collisions. Solid waste discarded from trains, which unfortunately litters nearly all tracks in our country, would attract wildlife, further increasing chances of collisions. It is presently impossible to predict what impacts the noise of trains is likely to have on the wildlife in the area. One must keep in mind that this is a pristine area which has had little human disturbance in the past, and probably with one of the highest mammal biomass in the country or even in Asia living under near ideal conditions.

The Wayanad area is largely agrarian and dominated by coffee plantations and other commodity crops. One wonders what trade this railway line will actually enhance. Furthermore, there are two types of traffic travelling between Wayanad, Mysuru and Bengaluru: commuters who work in these two cities and visit their homes in the Wayanad and Nilgiri areas for holidays or on weekends and those who holiday there during tourist seasons. The volume of service offered by the state transport services of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and private transport companies should be sufficient to meet the needs.

In fact, the High Court in Kerala rejected the project in 2013, astutely noting that “it is also pertinent to mention that there is road connectivity between these two places and it is not a case where other form of transportation is missing or unavailable.”

(Published 19 September 2016, 15:29 IST)

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