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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien

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Environment

Nov 09, 2018

Wildlife Corridors: Why is their Maintenance so Important for India’s Tigers?

Four hundred planned construction projects raises important questions about the definition and function of wildlife corridors.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

India is home to the largest tiger population in the world. That’s 2226 tigers, to be precise. To help ensure that this number does not drop, wildlife corridors are maintained, but this also needs to be counterbalanced to account for human needs.

“The obvious function of corridors is to facilitate physical movement”

A recent DownToEarth article announced that 400 new construction projects would impact wildlife corridors within Central and Eastern India. It garnered lots of attention, largely because so many new building projects in forest zones is often perceived as lacking any consideration for animals.

However, there are always two sides to the story. To get clarity, The Outdoor Journal dug a little deeper.

Photo: Bjoern

What are Wildlife Corridors?

According to an article published by senior programme officers at WWF, the definition of wildlife corridors varies from country to country. However the WWF themselves, explain that “the obvious function of corridors is to facilitate physical movement, which is crucial to the long-term viability of animal population: feeding/foraging, seasonal migrations as well as permanent movements in case of habitats being rendered unfit (due to climate change or other anthropo- genic factors) are facilitated by, and occur through, corridors.”

How Important are the Corridors in India, and will they be New Construction Projects?

The Outdoor Journal reached out to two experts, Shree Mahendra Vyas, tenured Supreme Court lawyer, and Latika Nath, expert tiger conservationist.

According to Shree Vyas, who has been advocating for 15 years, “some corridors are absolutely vital. Such as the Kanha to Pench reserve, where roads pass from Nagpur to Raipur, through so many protected and critical areas. In such ecologically sensitive areas, a high degree of care has to be taken to make sure that there is no irreversible damage, but this is not the case everywhere.”

Vyas also pointed out that not all 400 projects may be in highly ecological sensitive zones. Therefore, reporters need to validate their claim based on actual findings of the whereabouts of those projects. So far, the location of these projects are unknown.

There is no evidence available within the public domain, that discloses the nature and location of these projects. Of course, this does not detract us from emphasising why corridors are important and to advocate for their maintenance.

Why Wildlife Corridors are Vital for Tigers

The WWF reiterates that wildlife corridors should serve as an essential consideration in infrastructure planning and development. Their connectivity ensures that wildlife habitat is secure and animal movement is smooth, at a time of an increasing proximity of humans and animals. These corridors are maintained in such a way that human development doesn’t significantly interfere with animal life.

“The worrying thing about development in recent years, is the alienation of the Forest Officials from the local populations.”

Moreover, these wildlife corridors play an important role in the breeding process of tigers. Latika Nath points out that “by ensuring that there are corridors connecting large patches of tiger habitat, we ensure that there is a genetically healthy tiger population as well as space, for transient and dispersing animals to cross to new areas to establish and maintain healthy breeding populations of tigers in the wild.”

Nath also shed light on the significance of cooperation between forest officials and the local populations, in promising the safety of wildlife. However, Nath claims that things are a bit different now, with increasing urbanization.

“Kanha is one of the better managed National parks of the country. The worrying thing about development in recent years is the alienation of the Forest Officials from the local populations. I have seen and participated in many events where the forest officials used the goodwill of local populations to deal with forest fires, disease outbreaks, and problematic animals. Increasingly today there is a “us vs them” feeling being perpetuated by officials and this is a huge concern,” she explains.

“The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (‘WLPA’) fails to address habitat connectivity in a concrete way.”

WWF officers explain that “the long-term survival of species depend on maintaining viable habitats and connecting corridors which ensures variation in gene pool, and avoids risks associated with habitat fragmentation and the isolation of species. Further, for ensuring viable habitats it is essential to maintain large, contiguous landscapes.”

Photo: Vijay Phulwadhawa

The Impact of Linear Infrastructure and Tourism on Wildlife Corridors

India has a number of wildlife corridors, but they need to be well-defined. As of today, The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (‘WLPA’) does have provisions for notification and management of protected areas, but hasn’t addressed connectivity in any clear manner.

In the scientific study, an increasing emphasis on linear infrastructure is stated as a major reason for habitat fragmentation and isolation of species. Whether it’s roads, trains or power lines, the increasing human needs without sufficient consideration for wildlife protection has been detrimental not only to the forests, but also to the wildlife and human communities that live around it.

Latika Nath additionally puts the responsibility on unplanned tourism. “The uncontrolled proliferation of smaller tourism facilities with no built in measures for pollution control has led to huge pressures on the habitat,” she says.

Citing numerous examples, Nath feels that unsustainable development has only had an adverse impact on the ecological status in these areas, and that needs to be addressed properly. “Tiger and elephants’ movement routes have been affected, building has taken place without any attention to the ratios of built up areas to green areas, and noise and light pollution has not been discussed. In many regions the demand for water has impacted on the water table of the region and unsustainable pressures on rivers and streams,” she explains.

Shree Mahendra Vyas is of a similar opinion.  “Considering the developmental demand for people for roads, railways, or other forms of intrusions in the forest area et cetera, there is a pressure on the integrity of our wildlife habitats.”

“We can’t sensationalize things. These issues have to be understood and dealt with objectivity.”

Vyas also agrees that “all linear intrusions in the forest areas are a major form of disruption, and destroying the ecological integrity of that area and adversely affecting wildlife found in that area. Many of them cause irreversible damage to that area, many permanently blocking the corridors in the area. But which are those areas? They (project companies) have a tendency of doing all these things, unless strong mitigation measures are in place. But we can’t sensationalize things. These issues have to be understood and dealt with objectivity.”

“The government has to focus on creating urban and rural development plans that protect the environment and control the spawning of unplanned constructions.”

“We want everything for ourselves, and nothing for others. It’s a dicey area. So we have to think. People don’t think. Have we reduced our own demands, whether it’s water, electricity, or cars?” he remarked. Vyas sincerely thinks that the Supreme Court has always done its best to protect wildlife. The Chief Justices have ensured that laws are consistently revised to meet the changing needs of the human population, whilst trying to keep nature in mind. However, they haven’t gotten any credit for their efforts. The Indian population needs to be made aware of this lack of acknowledgment.

The Balancing Act

It is clearly evident from the perspectives of WWF programme officers, environmental lawyers and conservationists, that as of now, there are no guidelines that define wildlife corridors in India. This is an area that needs attention. While human-animal conflict is inevitable, there is no denying that effective law enforcement, scientific research, and strong mitigation measures are crucial in maintaining ecological balance. Additionally, people living in rural and urban communities need to do their bit to ensure that individuals change their personal behaviour before pointing fingers at others.

Photo: Latika Nath

Latika mentions how tourism can be used to increase awareness and create better protection for tigers in India.

“The government has to focus on creating urban and rural development plans that protect the environment and control the spawning of unplanned constructions. By increasing focus on improving the tourism experience in India, they need to capitalize and maximise the revenues from tourism and then perhaps the sheer economic importance of maintaining our pristine wilderness areas and biodiversity will be an important enough focus to stand up against the pressures of the industry and development,” she remarks.

We also have examples of communities where ecological sensibility is present. Take the case of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, for instance. The local conservationists and the park authorities signed an MoU to conduct science-based management of the wildlife region. Effectively, it means that the Mumbai population is basically living with the knowledge of leopards in their surroundings, but don’t feel afraid of them.

Moreover, there are reasons why India has the highest number of tigers today. Back in 2015, conservationists recognised the efforts of the Indian government to preserve the tiger population, which led to an increase in their numbers. The main reason cited for those healthy figures was giving tigers enough space, which was made possible with willingness, extensive research and appropriate technology.

Now, what’s absolutely necessary is to keep up the good work, strengthen the Indian forest departments with knowledge and tools, and ensure that the wildlife corridors are well-defined and properly maintained in India. With such efforts armed with scientific tools and the right attitude, animals and humans can coexist in a peaceful way.

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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