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Are India’s tiger reserves not sacrosanct anymore?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-08-2017 Mayank Aggarwal

New Delhi: After approving the diversion of forest land for projects in prime tiger habitats in the Panna tiger reserve and the Palamu tiger reserve, the apex wildlife panel of the Union environment ministry is now looking at the diversion of over 600 hectares falling in a critical tiger corridor area for an agricultural canal.

The proposal for diversion of 622.013 hectares of forest land falling in the tiger corridor linking Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana with the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra and the Indravathi Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh was discussed in a 29 July meeting of the panel.

The standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) headed by the Union minister of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) Dr Harsh Vardhan considered the proposal.

After extensive discussions, the standing committee decided that officials from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution under the ministry, would visit the project site and submit a detailed report in a fortnight for further consideration of the proposal.

Mint has reviewed the minutes of the committee’s meeting. The project for which the 622 hectares of forest land is being taken over is the Pranahita Irrigation Canal.

The environment ministry official, who briefed the wildlife panel, informed that the local officials had recommended the project with mitigation measures such as the construction of 16 so-called eco-bridges whose design will be provided by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, WII and the central government, according to the minutes

Other mitigation measures suggested include felling as few trees as possible, ensuring minimum disturbance to wildlife, and working only between 6am to 6pm.

As per the minutes, NTCA, which is India’s top body for conservation and protection of tigers, and which is a statutory body under the ministry, green-lighted the proposal with mitigation measures such as keeping the legal status of the forest land unchanged, and construction of eco-friendly crossings across the Pranahita Canal to avoid fragmentation of the corridor.

Telangana’s chief wildlife warden, however, said fewer eco-friendly crossings were needed.

The NTCA also suggested that construction of the water holes near the proposed canal along the corridor landscape should be cautiously planned since these would attract animals, increasing chances of human-animal conflict.

The tiger is India’s national animal. To check its dwindling population the central government launched “Project Tiger’ in 1973.

Recent studies showed that years of sustained effort may finally be bearing fruit. According to a 2014 estimation, India’s tiger population was 2,226, spread across 50 tiger reserves, compared to 1,706 in 2010 and 1,411 in 2006.

But in past few months, expert panels of the MoEFCC have cleared two projects–diversion of prime tiger habitat from Panna Tiger Reserve for the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project and from the Palamu tiger reserve for the North Koel project.

Wildlife experts said some critical tiger habitats should be left undisturbed.

“There are some critical sacrosanct areas—like tiger reserves and important corridors—and they should remain so. These cannot be ‘compensated’; nor is mitigation always a solution for destroyed vital forests and corridors. Mitigation comes in only when there is no alternative,”said Prerna Singh Bindra, former member of the National Board for Wildlife, and author of the book ‘The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis’.

“We need to remember that the national animal occupies just about 2% of India (by area). Kawal in Telangana is a new tiger reserve, and needs protection and nurturing to recover. Connectivity to Tadoba is important for its revival as it has the source population which can populate Kawal. Severing that link will be suicidal for Kawal,” she added.

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