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| Last Updated:: 30/10/2018

Odisha elephant deaths - Protect wildlife corridors, say experts












The horrifying deaths of seven elephants in Odisha’s Dhenkanal district have once again brought home the fact that India can no longer neglect its wildlife corridors. “In simple words, (the incident shows) human-elephant conflict is on the rise. Elephants without healthy corridors to pass through are crossing human-occupied lands, raiding crops, and getting mobbed or even electrocuted, as in this case,” says Mayukh Chatterjee, who heads the Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Division at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a Delhi-based non-profit. 



For those who do not know, Chatterjee explains the meaning of a wildlife corridor. “Its definitions vary for species. But they are essentially habitat patches that connect two source or sink habitats. Source habitats are those which provide good food and shelter for a viable population to thrive. Sink habitats are sub-optimal habitats that allow for small populations to thrive. Since there is often movement of animals across sink and source habitats, corridors connecting them are crucial,” he says. 



However, corridors will vary for species. “So, for elephants they may constitute a narrow and short stretch of forest connectivity through which elephants can pass from one source habitat to another, but for tigers, corridors will require enough prey species like deer to allow them to go through. Similarly, for long distance migrants like red deer, it may be an alpine meadow or a stretch of a mountainous valley,” continues Chatterjee. 



The major reason why wildlife corridors are essential is that they allow the flow of healthy genes to take place. “For instance, tiger corridors are critical to species conservation because they allow genetic flow between different meta-populations to ensure that no population undergoes a genetic bottleneck and is constantly infused with new robust genes from incoming tigers,” says Jharkhand-based conservationist Raza Kazmi. 



“Without corridors, our small protected areas will only end up being islands of conservation with unviable populations which will be highly prone to extinction,” adds Milind Pariwakam, member, IUCN WCPA Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group. 



Kazmi also shines a light on the ever-changing, dynamic nature of wildlife corridors. “It is also worth remembering that any tiger corridor that is active today might become inactive if the source forests of such tigers suffer or decline. Those that have been inactive for years may reactivate if the health of the source forests improves. The key is to protect the habitat of such forest corridors to maintain their sanctity and existence,” he says. 



And that is where India is failing. “The rapid development of linear projects such as road, railways and canals, forest fires usually caused by humans for Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), fragmentation due to illegal timber and firewood collection, diversion of forests for mining  and a growing human population putting pressure on pinch points in corridors, these are some of the main threats faced by tiger corridors in India,” enumerates Pariwakam. 



The scenario is hardly different for other species, including elephants. As the Odisha incident shows, the herd of 13 elephants in all, was crossing a railway track, where it ran into a live electric cable that caused the deaths of 7 pachyderms. The moot issue here is that most corridors, whether for elephants or tigers have either not been identified or are being identified slowly. 



For elephants, WTI has identified 101 functional corridors, and another seven corridors earlier recorded have already become dysfunctional, says Chatterjee. “The majority of tiger corridors are still unidentified. For instance, the NTCA-WII study shows only one tiger corridor in the entire state of Odisha. In the entire Central Indian and Eastern Ghats Landscape, there are only 26 corridors whereas actually there are many more,” says Pariwakam. 



So, what is the way to ensure that incidents such as Dhenkanal do not occur again? 



“Declare corridors as notified protected zones and stop developmental activities. If some developmental activity cannot be barred at all, appropriate planning should be undertaken involving conservationists who have been studying and trying to conserve such corridors. Many mitigation measures can be developed such as underpasses, over passes, check gates and bridges. They can also be incorporated into the development plan,” says Chatterjee.