Vivek Menon dreams of giving India’s wildlife the right to roam
There's an urgent need for ecological corridors that allow birds, animals and insects to move across human-dominated landscapes, says Wildlife Trust of India's Vivek Menon
It is an idea that was prevalent 2,500 years ago. Kautilya wrote in the Arthashastra, “Some teachers say that land with productive forests is preferable to land with elephant forests, because a productive forest is the source of a variety of materials for many undertakings, while the elephant forests supply only elephants. Kautilya disagrees. One can create productive forests on many types of land but not elephant forests." Later in the text, he emphasizes that a road within an elephant forest should not exceed thirteen-and-a-half feet in width, or only a fourth of that suggested for towns and the countryside. Elephant (read natural) forests must not be fragmented through human incursions and the wild beasts must have right of passage in their homestead.
When Kautilya wrote these lines, India’s forests (referred to in Sanskrit as aranyas) were more or less intact. They were yet to be fragmented by linear infrastructure.
One of the stories I have heard since childhood in Kerala involved the powerful monarch of Cochin in the 18th century, Rama Varma IX. Known popularly as Sakthan Thampuran, or the “Strong King", the monarch was known to have developed the town of Thrissur into what it is today. One part of the development was the clearing of 60 acres of forest land surrounding the Vadakkunnathan temple to build a circular road around the capital. It is said that the oracle from the nearby Paramekkavu Bhagavathi temple opposed this and danced in a frenzy, warning of divine retribution if the locks of Shiva, as he described the forests, were cut down. As is the wont with oracles, he smote his own head with a blunt sword, drawing blood and crowds. Unimpressed, the king is said to have corrected the sword stroke from vertical to horizontal, killing him on the spot. He then constructed the road that still stands, The Round. This was an early instance of conservation and development being at loggerheads.
What Rama Varma did in Kerala started to happen systematically across northern India during colonial rule. The engineers who constructed roads in the hills followed elephant paths as they were indicators of the most stable gradients. Nobody thought this would mean that elephants would lose passage over a landscape they had used for millennia. Or indeed, if the British did think about it, they did not care much. In The Making Of India: The Untold Story Of British Enterprise (2016), author Kartar Lalvani says, “The indisputable fact is that India as a nation as it stands today was originally put together and created by a small distant island country." There are instances of corruption and cruelty, he states, but “it is important to note that there is substantial list on the credit side. They include railways, roads, canals, mines, sewers, plantations and the establishment of English law and language". One could argue that six of these eight great attributes also resulted in great forest fragmentation, converting swathes of aranyas into small islands of green. As chronicled in the Babur Nama, the Mughal emperor used to hunt lions on the banks of the Yamuna. Currently the big cats are confined to a solitary reserve in southern Saurashtra. The one-horned rhinoceros, a prehistoric relic, used to roam the alluvial Terai from Pakistan to Myanmar. Today it is found in six isolated pockets of grassland in Assam and northern West Bengal. The elephant in the time of Kautilya roamed eight gaja vanas from Kashmir to southern India, and from Gujarat to the North-East. Today, the National Heritage Animal of India lives as six large and several small, disconnected populations around the country. All this has happened despite our glorious tradition of protecting forests.
If Kautilya is to be believed, the first gaja vanas or elephant sanctuaries were set up 2,500 years ago, during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. That would pre-date the US’ Yellowstone National Park, considered the world’s oldest park, by as many as 2,350 years! Even the British created protected parks, like Corbett and Kaziranga. In independent India, a flurry of parks were notified and key habitats protected. However, what remains in 21st century India is actually a sprinkle of green over a tapestry of human greed; small, isolated blotches of forests, wetlands, mountainscapes and deserts struggling to keep their heads up.
There is still one idea that can save India’s nature: ecological connectivity across a human-dominated landscape.
The Wildlife Trust of India, which I founded two decades ago, has been working to connect India’s nature reserves through corridors, canopies and catchments. In Meghalaya’s remote Garo Hills, the Green Spine project is doing just that, through village reserve forests set aside voluntarily by local communities along the backbone of the hills. It uses hoolock gibbons (India’s only ape), elephants and the mahseer fish as indicators of such connectivity. The mega Right of Passage project for the Asian elephant aims to allow elephants to move through the over 101 traditional corridors they have used since time immemorial. Recently, the 101 corridors have been consecrated to national memory through life-sized artworks of elephants across India and the call to give right of passage has started reverberating among policymakers.
Both Indian Railways and the National Highway Authority are showing keen interest in a modern way forward that can balance the needs of development and the environment. China has built the 1,956km-long Qinghai Tibet railway with 33 wildlife crossings. Large and open crossings mean that more than a dozen animals, from wild yaks to smaller animals like Tibetan antelopes, all use the landscape despite the busy rail line overhead. More than 600 tunnels installed in the Netherlands on highways have been documented to have had positive impacts on badgers. The 24 crossings on the TransCanada Highway in Canada’s Banff National Park have inspired North American road engineers to build wildlife passages and crossings into most linear infrastructure in natural habitat.
For conservationists, smart green infrastructure that allows for wild animal migration or even local movement is the best option available. The very presence of seven billion people in this world is pushing the natural world to its brink. Even the most idealistic of conservationists realize that nature is fighting a losing battle when pitched against the greed (and some would argue need) of man. The more pragmatic conservationist would fight hard when core areas are defiled but would be satisfied if development with safeguards is allowed in other places.
This makes sense for development agencies too. Road and rail hits involving wildlife are a huge safety hazard and can cause pile-ups and result in human deaths as well. In countries like India, with elephants being killed regularly by trains, and large animals crossing highways, it makes great sense for development agencies to plan an India that is ecologically safe while allowing for human use.
This is not a pipe dream. The Rajaji National Park is bisected by the main Delhi-Dehradun rail and highway. In the early 2000s, more than 11 elephants died there from train hits. A specialized project we ran there ensured a period of no mortality for 10 years. This was done through human patrolling, and by removing obstacles in the way of elephants. Now, it is time to use animal detection systems and specialized apps to fast-track the system and make it foolproof.
Planners of India’s infrastructure have to be sensitive to the needs of the country’s natural habitats—only then will the dream of ecological connectivity come true. Linking forests is in many ways a safer and more important concept than linking rivers. Where linear infrastructure needs to come up over such linkages, clear passages that are long enough, wide enough and numerous enough to allow passage of such diverse inhabitants of India as bats, elephants, tigers, birds and moles, must be envisaged. None of this must fragment the core habitats that are now protected—our protected areas are in any case only around 5% of the country. Infrastructure, where possible, must snake around them.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." India should provide for the right of passage of wildlife, ensuring human progress while assuring ecological connectivity and individual animal welfare. It’s a futuristic proposition at all levels.
Vivek Menon is the founder, trustee, executive director and CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India. A wildlife conservationist, environmental commentator and author, he has been part of the founding of five environmental and nature conservation organizations in India.