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Above: A herd of elephants crossing a road that cuts through a national park/Photo: UNI

As yet another pachyderm is knocked dead by a speeding bus in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, wildlife activists and conservationists press for stringent punishment and tighter clampdown on movement of vehicles along forest roads at night

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

Forty-year-old Ranga was crossing the road near the Mathigodu Elephant Camp in the Nagarhole Na­tional Park in Karnataka’s Kodagu district in the early hours of October 8 when a private bus, bound for Bengaluru from Kerala on NH 766 (that cuts through the Nilgiris biosphere reserve in the Western Ghats abutting the three southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) knocked him down. He died instantly.

The death of Ranga, a tusker, has not only banded the wildlife activists and conservationists to press for stringent punishment under the law but also strengthened Karnataka’s case before the courts for an even tighter clampdown on the movement of vehicles along forest roads, especially at night. While the bus involved in the accident has been seized and a complaint lodged against the driver under the Wildlife Protection Act, there is a feeling among wildlife activists that Karnataka needs to do more to secure the wildlife habitat and aggressively clamp down on potential road kills.

Ranga was a wild bull first found in the Bannerghatta National Park area, near Bengaluru. He had also earned some notoriety for raiding a few crop settlements around the region before the forest officials detained him for training at an elephant camp to be part of the 2019 Mysore carnival—the Mysore dasara festival.

Ranga belonged to the family of Asian elephants, listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Con­servation of Nature (IUCN), whose num­bers have rapidly declined over the years due to a combination of government apathy, heightened poaching, and, now, becoming unsuspecting victims of road and train accidents. Just last year, railway lines crossing elephant habitats in India led to over 200 elephant deaths. With this, India accounts for the largest number of train accidents involving elephants in the world.

In January 2009, a forest officer in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district, once notorious for being the camping ground of the forest brigand and elephant poacher Veerappan, raised the red flag first after he counted more than 30 vehicles plying every hour round-the-clock along the highways in the highly sensitive wildlife habitat areas. He brought this to the notice of the district collector who promptly clam­ped a night traffic ban on June 3, 2009, in one of the most critical habitats for elephants, under Section 115 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.

Later succumbing to the pressure from some groups, including politicians from Kerala, Karnataka recalled the ban on June 10, 2009. A PIL was later filed in the Karnataka High Court and on July 28, 2009, a division bench comprising the then chief justice, PD Dinakaran, and Justice VG Sabhahit in an interim order stayed the June 10 order to withdraw the ban on vehicular movement. Pressure groups on both sides—the transport lobby that argued for free vehicular movement on forest roads and wildlife lovers who wanted a total ban—besieged the Karnataka High Court with writ petitions. The Karnataka Forest Department, nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts got a shot in the arm when the Court ruled in their favour.

Kerala’s plea in August 2009 for lifting the ban on night traffic through the Bandipur National Park in Chamarajanagar district was rejected in March 2010 by a division bench comprising Justice V Gopala Gowda and Justice BS Patil. Kerala had argued that transporters had to choose alternative roads and this entailed more time and cost. While one of the roads passing through the Park—National Highway 212—is from Mysore to Kalpetta via Sultan Bathery, the other, National Highway 67, is from Mysore to Gundlupet. Kerala even brought up the subject of vegetable supply in its defence when it told the Court that people around Wayanad got their daily supply of vegetables from Gundlupet and adjoining areas in Kar­nataka and these were transported at night. The ban had affected the supply of vegetables, it said.

At one point, a representative from the Ministry of Surface Transport, which has the National Highways Authority of India under it, even argued against the Chamarajanagar district collector’s night traffic ban order, saying that the control of national highways vests with it under the National High­ways (Land and Traffic) Act, 2002. However, the bench, instead, threw its weight behind the flora and fauna of the area after watching a detailed video presentation from the forest department that flagged the danger from the rush of vehicles. The National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-16 also provided for certain restrictions on roads in the jungle.

Meanwhile, Special Leave Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court by the affected parties from Kerala to reconsider the night traffic ban. The petitioners included the Kerala government, the Nilgiri-Wayanad National Highway, Railway Action Council and the Ooty Hotel Owners Association. In January this year, the Supreme Court constituted a five-member committee representing the centre and the three southern states. The committee, after extensive field visits and interviews with locals, recommended that the status quo be maintained for the time being. The committee, with members from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the secretaries of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as well as the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, was asked to work on an alternative to the restrictions imposed on the highway running through these forest areas.

The Supreme Court observed that the committee should not only keep in mind the convenience of the people living around the forest areas but also ensure that the original inhabitants in one of the world’s most eco-sensitive critical habitats are not disturbed by noise, honking and screeching of tyres.

A Karnataka minister’s casual comment that elevated roads through the national park could be one alternative forced a slew of online petitions that went viral. These hit out against the HD Kumaraswamy-led JD (S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka. Kumaraswamy himself applied the brakes  by saying that the 9 pm to 6 am night-time ban on vehicle movement in Bandipur would continue. To cement his support to the green cause, his office followed up with the statement that the idea of an elevated road in this area (Bandipur) was not feasible.

Just a few weeks before that, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had sent a note to the state chief secretary seeking the state’s nod for lifting the night traffic ban and approval for a project to construct elevated roads or bio-flyovers on NH 212.

Kumaraswamy went to the extent of demanding a night traffic ban for wild­life areas across the state, even beyond the protected areas. “I feel there should be no plying of vehicles during night time in wildlife areas,” he said in a statement.

The ban on traffic from 9 pm to 6 am in Bandipur Tiger Reserve has become a bone of contention between Karnataka and Kerala. Karna­taka has so far resisted pressure from different lobbies. The nine-hour ban on NH 212 was imposed by the Karnataka High Court on March 9, 2010.

Wildlife conservationists have called upon the state government to take im­mediate measures to prevent continuing wildlife deaths on the Kannur-Mysuru inter-state highway that traverses al­most 12 km through the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. The highway stretch is a significant threat to wildlife and most commercial drivers drive recklessly. Although the speed limit is 30 kmph on this stretch, nobody follows it and so a night traffic ban should be enforced, they argue.

Ranga’s untimely death has also increased the call to shift the eight elephant camps run by the forest department outside the tiger reserves and national parks. The state has more than 100 elephants in captivity spread across the camps, most of them in the critical wildlife habitats. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) found that most state transport buses that were allowed to ply in the night were only 50 percent full. Even accident rates had fallen by half due to the ban.

“Any highway expansion inside the forest area will mean a death warrant for the wildlife,” says Prem Mitra, chairman of green conservation group A Rocha, which has done a lot of work on the ecology of the Asian elephant and elephant-human conflicts in the state. “Tusker Ranga’s death could have been avoided if the ban had been implemented in right earnest,” he adds and points out that the government must put up speed-breakers and effective signage and aggressively campaign for wildlife conservation measures.

The apex court at one point had directed Karnataka and Kerala to sit across the table and sort out the issues by arriving at a consensus. But the two could not come to a meeting point. The Court had planned to hear the case again in January 2016 but it was postponed after the counsel for Kerala, Gopal Subramanium, informed the apex court that his state government would go for an amicable solution that does not disturb the environment or wildlife movement. Kerala is still hopeful that the apex court will come to its rescue—four days before Ranga’s death on the forest road, it sought the highest court’s help to lift the ban on night traffic, at least for six months, citing flood havoc.

With pressure from so many lobbies choking critical wildlife habitats, it seems like a long road to nowhere for the inhabitants of the jungle.

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