This is an onerous task especially given the fact India is home to a rich assemblage of biodiversity and forest resources, and the goals of infrastructure development are increasingly coming into conflict with the conservation of forests and natural resources. In India, it is estimated that about 50,000 km of road development projects is expected to be completed over the next 5-6 years.
Central India, consisting of parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states, is one of the regions in India where roads are being developed at an accelerated pace. The region boasts of a thriving economy based on agriculture, tourism and mining, and road development is being seen as a means of achieving several development goals. This landscape has also been recognised as one of the regions with the highest potential for long-term tiger conservation in the country and is home to rich biodiversity within and outside of the protected area network. Several roads pass through these forested tracts and threaten the viability of long-term conservation goals in this important tiger landscape.
Given this rate of development of new roads and upgradation of old roads, it is imperative today to find ecologically-sound solutions to the challenges posed by road-building in natural areas. And thus Underpasses i.e. bridge-like structures that allow for movement of wild animals across roads while vehicular traffic passes above grade, are among the commonly used strategies the world over to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and enhance permeability of wildlife corridors. India’s first dedicated corridor for wild animals, at Pench tiger reserve is a classic example of Mitigation Measures undertaken to reduce wild animal mortality and could be vital for the long-term viability of tiger populations in the central Indian landscape.
National Highway 44 (earlier NH 7) is the longest highway of India, and is part of the North-South corridor connecting Srinagar to Kanyakumari. Along its course, it connects several important urban and rural centres of economic importance. It also cuts across important animal corridors along its route. Along a 16.1 km length of the NH 44 passing through forests adjoining the Pench Tiger Reserve and intersecting the Pench-Navegaon-Nagzira tiger corridor, nine animal crossing structures were constructed. Thanks to the country’s first and largest dedicated underpasses for animals in the world. These corridors have been fitted with CCTV cameras to monitor the movement of animals.
According to Wildlife Institute of India, 9 Crossing structures including 5 animal underpasses & 4 minor bridges have been created. According to the report, based on camera trap survey data from March-December 2019, 18 wild animal species, excluding rhesus macaque and grey langur, were found using these underpasses. Seven species of small mammals were found to use the structures. These included Indian hare and jungle cat, which are the most frequent users of the underpasses, and the rare rusty spotted cat. Among wild ungulates, the five major species viz., spotted deer, gaur, nilgai, sambar and wild pig were found to use the structures.
Tiger, leopard, wild dog, sloth bear and jackal, the major carnivore species in the landscape, were found using the structures with varying frequencies. Wild dogs were found to use the structures the most, followed by tigers. A total of 89 tiger crossings were recorded from six of the nine structures, by 11 individual tigers. Camera trapping and continuous monitoring were carried out on four minor bridges (MNBs) and five animal underpasses (AUPs).
The structures are located along a 16.1 km section of the highway that cuts across the tiger reserve and adjoining forests in 3 forest segments. These underpasses has the potential to be a game changer for a country like India which is trying to achieve sustainable developmental goals.
By Tapas Bhattacharya