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Life-giving Corridors

Delay extinctions by connecting wildlife habitats

- Aakash Bhushan, June 10 2021 

The sixth mass extinction is unfolding. 

Extinction has always been a part of earth’s evolutionary journey. But with increasing human interference, this process has sped up by many folds.

It is immensely important to somehow delay the extinction of wild animals. To do this, deliberately connecting confined wildlife habitats to each other and promoting wildlife procreation by giving them better access to different gene pools that are distant, is imperative.

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Guru Ghasidas National Park forests connect to Sanjay Dubri Tiger Reserve.

Fighting the odds

Exclusive landscape connectivity for wild animals helps wildlife populations maintain a viable ecosystem and biodiversity amidst mankind’s increasing interventional disruptions. Encroachment, clearing forestland to cultivate on it, illegal- and over- exploitation of natural resources, ill-conceived developmental activities have relentlessly fragmented forest areas with the ravaging degradation of large wildlife habitats.

The first death-defying challenge for wildlife is interaction with the forest’s original endogenous threats. The second that causes the decline of individual wildlife species is the ever-present exogenous threat: confrontations with roadways, railways, power channels, mining and quarrying, industries, hydroelectric power projects in and around the protected areas that alter various ecological processes. These forests were once untampered.

Exclusive corridors : connect isolated habitats

Wildlife corridors bridge two otherwise isolated habitats through which animals migrate from one forest to another. Of immense importance, these wildlife corridors help maintain genetic diversity. Without it, restricting a species' inside one habitat causes it to inbreed with its own kin - a biological calamity that also leads to extinction.

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Wildlife corridors through forests in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh states : the Central Indian Landscape, India 

Source: WWF-India

Habitat fragmentation has isolated plant and animal populations; especially, large migratory wild herbivores such as elephants and wide-ranging carnivore species like tigers, hampering their movement and migration between fragmented forests. But connecting wildlife habitats is the only way a species can mix with a different genetic pool, ensuring the long-term survival of viable wildlife populations.

Long-term survival of wildlife populations can only be attained by recognising the importance of corridors and by including advocacy for planning and managing such areas

India has well established corridors such as Kanha-Pench corridor, Kanha Achanakmar corridor,  the Kosi River corridor and some others that support a good population of tigers. I had a chance to work in the Bandhavgarh-Sanjay Corridor as an Assistant Project Officer in WWF-India’s Tiger Conservation Program. We studied the corridor extensively with the help of sign surveys and camera trapping. Conserving these corridors are TOP PRIORITY for most conservation organisations today as these are the last remaining green patches that connect two protected areas amidst the ever increasing encroachment on forestlands.

Home to a plethora of wild flora and fauna, these pristine forests and beautiful water bodies need special attention. In order to come up with possible solutions and management plans for the conservation of wildlife corridors, the presence of wild animals is first assessed. Rapid assessments are often used to understand the population of wild carnivores as well as herbivores in these forests. These assessments are done in several interconnected steps, each depending on the other.

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Forest staff training, Achanakmar Tiger Reserve

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WWF-India Tiger Conservation project officers Ajinkya Bhatkar and Aakash Bhushan spot and inspect a tiger pug mark

Training forest staff is the first fundamental step to competently assess the ecological situation. Camera trapping, sampling and other technicalities are discussed along with critical information about the study area beforehand. Staff of different parks and reserves have different acumen. So bringing uniformity in the level of understanding is valuable. In addition, protocols and survey techniques can vary largely with each project. Refresher courses aim for more accuracy in the assessment’s outcome and avert unnecessary hassles.

Spotting clues, indirect signs

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Pug mark of a male tiger

After training, planning and preparation, the forest team’s on-foot journey begins through the corridor in search of indirect signs of wild carnivores and herbivores. These walks are usually on virtually divided survey grids. Such walks start early in the morning when the alarm calls of langur (Grey langurs) and Chital (Spotted deer) fades away with the brightening skies.

Pug marks, scats, scratches, pellets and many more indirect signs are recorded while walking across hills, river beds, dense forest grooves and along villages in the footsteps of something as majestic as the tiger.

Collecting indirect evidence helps in assessing the presence of wild animals in these vastly different landscapes. It helps the wildlife conservation team further to understand the potential barriers and the interactions these animals may face. It also helps assess the viability of the corridor, based on which management plans and potential solutions are drawn out.

Camera trap confirmations

WWF-India project officer Malvika Colvin and senior project officer Ajinkya Bhatkar strap C5 Cuddeback camera traps to different places

Indirect sign surveys are complemented by direct images captured with camera traps that confirm the presence of wildlife. Half a century ago, camera traps were used only experimentally by a handful of people. Today it is part of commercial technology used by wildlife biologists, photographers and hobbyists, a well-known tool around the globe. Countless documentaries, citizen science projects and other fields have widely used candid images and videos produced by camera traps.

Right from a species location, population size and interspecies interactions, camera traps provide detailed data on various aspects of a species. They also increase our understanding of how humans along with livestock interact with undomesticated wild creatures. This, in turn, helps improve the understanding of human impact on wildlife and vice versa - a knowledge that helps managers make better small- and large-scale decisions.

Work the solutions

Out of a plethora of problems present in the world, the ecological/ wildlife corridors have one significant issue that hampers its wellbeing the most – roadways. While roadways are the linkage between geographical places and socio-economic activities that promote local development, it also has several negative impacts. Pollution, habitat destruction, resource degradation, interference and hindrance to wildlife movement and most notoriously, segmenting forests.

Where corridor surveys help understand the presence of wildlife and its movement patterns, ground-reality management plans and innovative solutions are crucial to its implementation. Better monitoring, strict policies and regulations can definitely help conserve these last remaining corridors, but a rather newer approach to find the balance between development and conservation has proved helpful to quite an extent- wildlife overpasses/underpasses.

Spanning highways to funnel cherished untamed living creatures from one side to the other,

conservationcorridor.org has great photos of overpasses and underpasses constructed in several places round the world. India has recently developed and is developing several over- and underpasses around the country. One such wildlife underpass is the Kanha-Pench corridor in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh built in 2019 between one of the most important wildlife corridors of India. Another one is under construction on India’s Nagpur-Mumbai Super Communication Expressway: the focus is on co-existence, with five wildlife overpasses and a network of underpasses

Building an overpass or underpass takes a lot of time and heavy machinery. It also creates disturbances in and around the construction area. Once built, animals do not utilise them right away. Some species take a long time to accept these new additions to their environment before venturing to use them.

The key to a successful over- or underpass is their consistent maintenance. Only this critical safe connection for wildlife to move between fragmented forests will allow continuous gene flow between what is now, isolated populations.

Emphasis can be given towards making exclusively safe passages for wildlife, but several studies have shown that closing roads and removing manmade structures have allowed natural corridors to re-emerge within a region.

Nature, in fact, requires minimum human manipulation to flourish. To support long-term wildlife populations further, conservation efforts need to go beyond just maintaining ‘functionality’. Exploring and identifying connectivity between landscapes is a fundamental requirement to lessen the disastrous calamity of mass extinctions.

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WHAT OUR READERS SAY

Nilesh Singh

Very informative and well written article , keep writing such mind-blowing content. Great piece of information, love to see more such article, this left me with purpose and inspiration.

Vinai Singh

I read the articles.  As usual found them interesting. I was especially gratified to learn that our government has started building over and underpasses for animal corridors. So much needed.

Suresh Nair 

Indeed an excellent article and well written after  detailed research.