Wildlife-friendly roads pay off, 18 species using special underpasses in Pench

Published on Oct 08, 2020 06:30 PM IST

Wild dogs were found to use the underpasses the most, followed by tigers

A tiger using an underpass on National Highway-44(WII/HT PHOTO)
A tiger using an underpass on National Highway-44(WII/HT PHOTO)
Hindustan Times, Dehradun | BySuparna Roy

Scientists from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Dehradun who conducted a two-year study have found that 18 wildlife species are using special underpasses on National Highway-44 which passes through the Pench Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.

WII scientists said this is India’s first and largest road stretch where such mitigation measures have been used on such a scale and studied.

The scientists came to the conclusion after observing the movement of wild species for the past two years, through the nine underpasses built on the National Highway-44.

As part of a study on, “Ecological Impact Assessment of Existing and Proposed Road Infrastructure on Important Wildlife Corridors in India for Strategic Planning of Smart Green Infrastructure,” three sites were studied in India.

These included the Central Indian tiger landscape including major roads cutting across the animal corridors in the landscape, the National Highway 37 (now 715) cutting through the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape in Assam, and the State Highway 33 passing through the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka.

“As part of the project, we also monitored the animal underpasses constructed on the National Highway 44 passing through the Pench Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra. We used camera traps to capture the movement of animals under the nine crossing structures during March-December 2019. We found 18 species of wild animals that were using the crossing structures, with varying frequencies. Seven species of small mammals were also found to use the structures,” said the report published by the institute on this project.

The wildlife species 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 that were captured on camera included spotted deer, gaur, nilgai, sambar and wild pigs,” the report said.

“Tigers, leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears and jackals, 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,” it said.

Bilal Habib, senior scientist at WII and principal investigator in this study said that in the past nine months of monitoring, more than 5,000 animals were seen to be crossing the road through these underpasses.

“We have more than 5,000 animal crossings including that of 11 individual tigers which are using this area. These roads actually fragment the wildlife habitat and the landscape. It was being upgraded which would have led to more traffic affecting animal movement from one place to another or cross properly, which is why these mitigation measures of underpasses were important. So far, these are the first such mitigation measures at such a scale that have been put in place for wildlife in the country,” said Habib.

Elaborating more on the need for making wildlife-friendly roads in the central Indian landscape, Akanksha Saxena, a researcher on the project said that the Pench Tiger Reserve acts as a source population of tigers for the landscape making it an important area for conservation.

“The Central Indian landscape is one of the tiger conservation landscapes with the highest potential of long-term tiger conservation in the country. The landscape has some prime tiger habitats and the most genetically diverse tiger population in India. The landscape is also one of the most fragmented due to human activities. It is therefore very important to maintain the connectivity in this landscape through wildlife-friendly roads,” said Saxena.

The scientists have suggested improving mitigation measures and reducing pressure of human activities on the crossing structures. These include, levelling/ terracing/merging with surrounds, planting of shrubs or grass, regular patrolling, painting of pillars walls with camouflage paints, weekly cleaning of underpasses, creation of trails to enhance use by wildlife among others.

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