Carnage of the tigers on India's new motorways

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The Independent Online

There was something in the road ahead. It was hard to make it out in the evening gloom: it was no bigger than a cow, but the shape was all wrong. Then we suddenly saw it picked out in the headlights: a baby elephant, trapped in the middle of the road with cars hurtling towards it from both directions.

There was something in the road ahead. It was hard to make it out in the evening gloom: it was no bigger than a cow, but the shape was all wrong. Then we suddenly saw it picked out in the headlights: a baby elephant, trapped in the middle of the road with cars hurtling towards it from both directions.

We managed to swerve in time. Then we saw them in the darkness, 20 or 30 elephants, waiting at the edge of the jungle. This is some of the last pristine jungle on earth, home to wild elephants, leopards, tigers and rhinoceros. But man is beginning to encroach. Every year, wild elephants die trying to cross the road here. And things are about to get much worse.

The narrow country road is about to be transformed into a four-lane motorway as part of a huge national project. The jungle on either side, until now protected as a national park, will be cut back. Heavy juggernauts that now use a slow road that passes through several towns further south will be re-routed through the jungle. The elephants won't stand a chance.

The new "West-East corridor" motorway planned here will have a devastating effect on endangered species, according to conservationists. It will carve through some of the last remaining habitats of the rare Indian one-horned rhinoceros.

It will also jeopardise the future survival of the wild tiger. West Bengal is the place where efforts to save the tiger have been most successful. But the new motorway will carve through the famous Buxa Tiger Reserve, and the Mahananda National Park, boxing the tigers into an ever-shrinking habitat.

"All the work that has been done in the past 50 years will be destroyed completely," says PK Sen, the director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature's tiger and wildlife programme in India. A veteran of wildlife preservation for the past 40 years, Mr Sen used to run Project Tiger, the national scheme responsible for India's unparalleled successes in boosting the tiger population.

"You can't say you have a wildlife preservation programme and then develop the very place that you're trying to preserve the wildlife," he says. "If you're going to do that, you may as well just say 'We don't want to preserve the tiger'."

The road that endangers all this, the "West-East corridor" is part of an ambitious new project to build motorways across India. The country's roads have been neglected for decades, and India's transport infrastructure now lags badly behind its needs as one of the world's fastest growing economies. Many major cities are connected only by narrow two-lane roads riddled with potholes.

The government plans to change all this with a spree of motorway-building: connecting Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras to each other by a series of motorways, and building two enormously long motorways across the length and breadth of the country, from Kashmir in the north to Cape Comorin in the south, and from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the east.

The "West-East corridor" is expected to cross no fewer than seven national parks and wildlife reserves in West Bengal alone. "Take the case of Kaziranga national park in Assam, where there is already a national highway passing through," says Mr Sen. "All sorts of animals are dying under the wheels."

On the narrow road that already passes through Gorumara National Park, motorists stop to gaze at the herds of wild elephants carving their way through the seemingly impenetrable jungle. This is one of the last preserves of the Indian one-horned rhino, of which only 3,000 remain in the wild.

But it is the elephants that will be affected most drastically, because they are a migratory species. Every year the herds travel across huge distances. "An elephant needs 325 litres of water and 365kg of food every day," explains Bimal Dibuath, the forest range officer at Gorumara. "They have to move about for it. From generation to generation the elephants follow the same track."

But the new motorway will cut right across the elephants' traditional route. The narrow country roads already do. Not that long ago, near the town of Alipoordooar, three elephants were killed in traffic accidents in a single day.

Already the elephants are being forced into conflict with man by the encroachments on to their traditional migration routes. We visited one village where a herd of wild elephants had passed through. Half of Dr Pradip Kumar Pandy's grove of betel palms lay in ruins.

He said the palms had lain in the path of the elephants, so a big male had smashed them to the ground. The betel nuts, which Indians use to get a mild, legal high, were Dr Pandy's family's main source of income.

Another villager told us how his house began shaking. "When I opened the door, I saw an elephant had broken into the next room," he said. The elephant broke into his food store and took his entire supplies.

It doesn't have to be this way, say local activists from the Society for Preservation and Awareness of Wildlife and Nature, or Spawn. They have proposed an alternative route for the "West-East Corridor", passing through built-up areas further south and skirting around almost all the national parks.

"It would also reduce the distance of the motorway by about 38km, which would save a lot of money," says Mousumi Dutta of Spawn.

But local businesses have opposed the southern route, because it would divert the motorway away from Siliguri, the region's commercial capital. Although no final decision has been announced, well-informed local sources say that the path through Siliguri and the national parks has been chosen.

The consequences would be devastating, warned Ms Dutta. "If this road is built, after five or 10 years there won't be any wildlife left."