[Interview: Anish Andheria] ‘Citizen science can help reduce wildlife mortality’

  • Fragmentation of forests is increasing due to extension and expansion of linear structures including roads and railway lines. This has resulted in increasing number of wildlife mortalities.
  • Wildlife Conservation Trust launched a mobile app that relies on citizen science to collate data on accidents involving wildlife. The data will be used for research and to influence policy making.
  • Mitigation structures are being planned for roads running through protected areas to offer safe passages to animals.
  • Fragmented forests are also leading to rise in incidents of feral dogs taking down wild animals and transmission of infectious diseases from domestic animals to wild animals.

Millions of animals die on the roads every year. With the aim of crowdsourcing data of roadkills, the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) launched a mobile-based application earlier this year. The app can be used to report wildlife deaths on roads or railway lines through geo-tagged photographs.

WCT is a not-for-profit that works in and around 160 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries spread across 23 states of India. Its president, Dr. Anish Andheria is a specialist in large carnivores with deep knowledge on predator-prey relationships and a member of the Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh State Boards of Wildlife.

In an interview with Manu Moudgil, Dr. Andheria talks about various aspects of wildlife conservation, including mitigation measures along linear infrastructure, fragmentation of forests and implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

Dr. Anish Andheria, President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), a non-profit that works for wildlife conservation in and around 160 Protected Areas in India. Photo by Anish Andheria.

Wildlife Conservation Trust recently launched the Roadkills app that aims to collect data related to animal mortality due to road traffic. What is the magnitude of this problem and how will this app help?

Millions of animals die on Indian roads every year as these crisscross through forest areas, coming in the way of water bodies animals use, intersecting their migratory paths and other essential routes. Amphibians and reptiles are the worst hit.

When we went to find data on animal mortality, there was no reliable source. Since we can’t collect that much data on our own, we decided to rely on citizen science through a mobile app. All that people need to do is whenever they see a dead or injured animal on the road, take a picture and upload it on the Roadkills app along with location. Over a period of time, we will know which are the spots that are dangerous for which animals because mortality will vary with areas and species. With this data, we can go to the government and seek remedial measures like mitigation structures. There is enough technology to provide safe passage to even a snake on a six-lane national highway. There will still be mortalities but at a smaller magnitude.

I know many bureaucrats who want to act but they don’t go by emotions. They want proof which is what this app will provide. We have instances where collection of data has helped curb vehicular movement. For instance, on the highway cutting through Bandipur and Mudumalai tiger reserves, there were incidents of road kills but no data. Non-profit organisations spent time to collect that data which was used to stop night traffic on the route. The ban has recently been extended by the Karnataka government. The mobile app can further strengthen such exercises with little cost to the organisations.

What kind of mitigation measures are possible and what progress is happening on the ground?

Several mitigation measures allowing safe passage to animals are possible. There can be a wide overpass for animals, underpasses, various sizes of culverts and underground tunnels. We have to make a lot of them so that we don’t funnel animals into a stretch which may make it easy for poachers to target them. For smaller animals like amphibians and reptiles, there can be smaller underground culverts. For frogs, small barricades are also needed so that they don’t go to the road. Thankfully, these smaller animals don’t travel much and they are not territorial. They will hit the barricades and move sideways to find the tunnels through which they can cross over. Of course, there will still be mortalities but we can definitely minimise them.

Mitigation structures are planned on National Highway 44 that connects Nagpur with Jabalpur and runs through the Pench Tiger Reserve. Maharashtra has planned for nine structures in a 40-50 km stretch. These include underpasses for animals and culverts. They are also planning to widen the bridges over streams. The Samruddhi Expressway, a six-lane highway connecting Mumbai with Nagpur, will also have such safeguards. I am member of a committee that will analyse the danger spots and ensure mitigation structures are put up there. So, governments are opening up to this idea. A lot of good work has been done in the United States but the scenario is totally different there because they have low population density and large wilderness areas. On the other hand, developing countries like India have highways ripping open the forests because we believe number of kilometres built is a measure of development.

Roadkills app by WCT is a citizen science initiative that empowers users to report roadkills in India. Photo from Google Play.

Besides roadkills, how are fragmented forests threatening wildlife?

There are more animals dying because of infections passed on to them by feral and domestic animals than those dying because of poachers. With forests getting fragmented, dogs and domestic animals have got access to the innermost areas of the forest, which was not the case earlier. We are doing a study of the prevalence of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in livestock to assess the risk factors that could facilitate disease transmission to wild herbivores in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. Any epidemic affecting wild ungulates will have detrimental long-term impact on tiger populations. The depletion of a prey base in the tiger reserves will only lead to an increase in human-wildlife interface leading to livestock predations and instances of injuries or fatalities to the people residing in these areas. Such an event will have a negative impact on the perception of people living alongside tigers.

Many a times we may not know that the animal that got killed by a predator, had a pathogen. That pathogen may have weakened it, making it an easy prey. So, we have to account for such cases which are not a clear cut predator-prey relationship. We are hopeful that once we get the results, government would want to scale up such investigations to a national level.

There is heightened concern on issue of feral dogs attacking wildlife. Studies have also pointed out that they are a big threat. What has been your experience?

As I said earlier, dogs are now able to go deeper into the forests due to fragmentation and an increasing road network. We have caught them on our camera traps put up in dense forests. Lot of animals, especially sambar deer, spotted deer, young nilgai and pigs are being killed by dogs. In a city, you won’t find dogs attacking goats, so why do they kill wild animals? I believe these dogs are actually being kept as hunting dogs. They look like simple feral dogs, but go after any animal they see. And it’s a massive loss to herbivores especially during fawning season because they drop babies and dogs take them. Also, we see pictures of a sambar being pulled down by dogs but I am sure there are many more amphibians, reptiles and birds that the dogs are taking.

Forest Rights Act (FRA) usually gets divergent views from conservationists and tribal rights activists. What are your thoughts on this? 

I feel Forest Rights Act has a place but the implementation is not done in the right way. If FRA had been designed properly, it would have benefited both people and forest. The window to file claims should have been closed within a particular time frame. Also, individual titles are being given while community rights are being discouraged. I believe people have a tendency to take more than what they are entitled to. Only when they work in groups, in communities, there is a check on individual ambitions.

But now the individual wrongs are getting multiplied leaving a huge impact on the ecosystem. The resultant backlash of environment on everybody is massive. The Act should have been framed in a way that there was not much leeway for individuals to behave like individuals. That’s why community forest rights (CFR) is important. Before the Act was to be implemented, GIS maps could have been taken of the forest areas to compare them with post-implementation to know where things have gone wrong.

People who have pilfered don’t realise the impact it will have on their grandchildren. So, eventually it’s a loss for both people and forest.

Can people and the forest live in harmony? Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

What about rights within the national parks?

Currently, people are extracting resources, but I feel we should keep national parks away and give people an option to relocate if they feel that by doing so they will have a better life. It should be up to them whether they want to relocate or not.

I am sure about one thing, that with too many people in the forest, there can’t be harmony. There has never been harmony between people and forest. It’s just a poetic, romantic thought. If there had been a harmony, we would not have moved to cities or been talking about all these issues about forest conservation and environment.

It was just relatively less intense earlier, but we have always had a footprint. That has had a huge cascading impact on our co-inhabitants, which is not how other species live. That’s what makes us unique.

How are we treating the forest rangers?

Forests are vital organs of the country. It’s far more important to guard them. Currently the defence forces are guarding the skin (borders of our nation), but skin will decay if the heart stops. We need to alleviate the status of our forest staff who are risking their lives on a daily basis to guard these forests. They are protecting the oxygen, water and other natural resources which are essentially for us to live and function. We need to give them the respect they deserve and the training they need. Currently, the training is substandard.

They need to be better equipped and more secure in their jobs. We already have the working model in defence forces. Their kids are taken care of, their insurance and pension plans are in place. We just need to copy and paste the same model for forest guards. Job of a forest guard should not be the last resort for people who can’t get into army, police or anything else. It needs the same respect. Our country is more than the national symbols – flag, map and Taj Mahal. It’s the forests, water and biodiversity that gives this country its true identity.

How do you see India changing in next 5-10 years as smaller towns and villages get urbanised and older generation that lived in harmony with nature passes away?

In some places, forests will do well because aspirations of people will change. They would not go to collect firewood. Also, remittances coming in from out migrants will satisfy their needs and they will stop going into the forest as much. But if a small village inside a forest becomes large and roads start going inside, that will become a problem. So, we will have two competing impacts.

I am an optimist. Though science is saying that we are going to destroy most of the species, I feel if technology is used effectively, we may be able to slow down damage on the forest. But we have to be very strict in our aspirations. We can’t ever hope or ask for equal lifestyles. Even in a democratic world where we talk about equity, we don’t have natural resources that can support the whole population with consumptive lifestyles. There is not enough cement or water or wood for all of us to use in the way the elites are using. So, urbanisation will have a negative impact overall but in states which are largely forested or agrarian, urbanisation will help certain forests.

Overall forest cover will go down and fragmentation will go up, but forest patches that will survive this will be better protected than they are today. All this will have a negative impact on water, health and will lead to a greater divide between the rich and the poor, which will result in social unrest and breakdown of law and order.


Banner Image: A chital deer crossing a road in Nagarhole national park. Photo by Chinmayisk/Wikimedia Commons.

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