Surrendering the Last Frontier
The Kanha-Pench landscape is one of India’s best four tiger habitats. But despite objections from
the National Board for Wildlife, National Tiger Conservation Authority, Wildlife Institute of
India and Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee, a highway might just deny the
big cat its best chance of survival
Text & Pictures by Jay Mazoomdaar
Forget the felled trees, and the highway, for a moment. These are mere props in this theatre of the absurd. But the climax will indicate which way the fine balancing act of growth-vs-green is likely to go in the future. The plot unfolds in the heartland of erstwhile Gondwana—a ‘dark mysterious blank’ on the map of the British Empire of yore until the mid-nineteenth century, when a young Captain, James Forsyth, started exploring the dense and dangerous tiger forests of central India with the scientific curiosity of a geologist. One-and-a-half centuries since, much has changed in this land of the Gond tribe. Rail and roadways crisscross the lush landscape that has survived development and deforestation in democratic, independent India. The remains of the mighty forests still constitute India’s best green landscape with an intricate network of national parks and sanctuaries. Fittingly, Kamal Nath, one of the tallest political leaders of this green belt, became India’s environment minister in 1991. Two decades on, the Member of Parliament from Chhindwara today holds the portfolio of Road Transport and Highways. Today, against the collective wisdom of the country’s best experts, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) wants to roll out highways on Nath’s home turf, cutting through and cutting apart India’s best, and last, surviving forests.


According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), in 2008, the forest landscape connecting Kanha and Pench tiger reserves is one of the four most viable tiger habitats in the country (the other three being the Western Ghats, Corbett and Kaziranga). This 16,000 sq km landscape has two source populations and a total of 141 tigers. This is also home to some of India’s most endangered species, such as Indian bison and dhols (Indian wild dog). Forest connectivity makes a landscape superior wildlife habitat, allowing animal movement and gene flow. In the absence of forest corridors, small tiger populations in isolated reserves face the risk of local extinction—either due to poaching in the short term or due to genetic decay over generations. Sariska is a prime example. The Kanha-Pench landscape thrives on its healthy contiguity. In isolation, the tiger population of about 30 at Pench is far from viable. The area of Pench tiger reserve (411 sq km) in itself is insufficient for a viable habitat. As per NTCA, a population is not viable below 80-100 tigers, and for such a population , at least 800-1,000 sq km of habitat is required. Clearly, the connectivity to Kanha (917 sq km, 89 tigers ) is key to keep the tiger population at Pench viable. The same is true for the other mega fauna in the area.