Forest Dept. urges PWD to take measures for safe movement of wildlife, but latter cites the paucity of funds
At Manesar’s Shri Shani Dev Ji Dham, just off the busy Delhi Jaipur highway, Mukesh Pandey was shutting the temple window after the routine evening prayer. Suddenly, the priest saw a leopard and froze. The wild cat was barely a hundred metres away, beyond the temple boundary that has an iron fence.
“It sent chills down my spine,” says Mr. Pandey as he recounted his encounter with the feline on August 23, 2020 night.
He rushed to shut the door, but it didn’t have the latch. “I was alone. It left me more scared. Since stepping out through the door could attract his attention, I hurriedly escaped through the window to reach out to the staff in the kitchen,” says the 35-year-old.
When the staff threw light on the leopard from a torch from the rooftop, the feline walked towards a hillock behind the temple and disappeared in the dark.
The priest has spent more than a decade at this temple in the middle of the Aravalis and has a plethora of fascinating stories to tell about his encounters with the wildlife in the surroundings. He vividly remembers how a leopard once strayed into the temple premises in 2008 at night and rushed towards the highway when the staff switched on the lights.
“Left scared, he probably rushed towards the highway and was hit by a speeding vehicle. The traffic staff removed the carcass and took it to a nearby police station. I had gone to see it. His face was smashed on the right,” says Mr. Pandey.
“Again, a leopard was found dead near a gaushala. It was in 2011,” he adds, pointing to his left.
And it is not just leopards. The priest recalls having seen many Nilgais, hyenas, golden jackals and even porcupines and hares left injured, maimed, or killed by the speeding vehicles. “I remember burying many Nilgais that were left immovable after an accident and later died,” he adds.
A passage for animals
Just outside the temple, a culvert is now blocked for a decade. Dharambir Malik, a local, said the culvert was blocked during the widening of the highway and later the construction of the service road. “If the culvert is opened, it could act as a passage for the wildlife as well as the local villagers. It is big enough for even the Nilgais to walk through it,” says Mr. Malik.
Two more culverts, around two km away from the temple on either side of a roadside eatery — Fauji Dhaba —at Panchgaon, too are choked to the top. Mohammad Hamid, who runs a puncture shop off the highway, claims that the culvert close to his shop has been blocked for more than five years. “I remember having walked through it earlier. But gradually it got choked,” says Hamid. He also confirms a leopard’s death in a road accident a few meters away from the culvert in 2019.
Vaishali Rana, a wildlife activist, says that several wild animals, including leopards, were killed in road accidents on the three highways — Delhi-Jaipur Highway (NH-48), Gurugram-Alwar Highway (NH-248A) and Gurugram-Faridabad Highway — cutting through the Aravalis and fragmenting the wildlife habitat, but little was done to prevent it.
Struggle with signboards
It was after she pursued the matter with the Forest Department and the Public Works Department for more than two years that the authorities finally put six signboards on Delhi-Jaipur Highway and around two dozen on Gurugram-Faridabad Highway warning the motorists to slow down.
Thermoplastic rumble strips are also fixed at five locations on the Gurugram-Faridabad Highway.
The PWD remained in denial about the wildlife deaths for two years till November 2020 when the Forest Department provided them with a record of accidental deaths of leopards and golden jackals, says Ms. Rana.
Involvement of leaders
“But it was after I met Deputy Chief Minister and PWD Minister Dushyant Chautala in this regard two weeks back that the department swung into action to put signboards and rumple strips. Mr. Chautala too found it difficult to believe that leopards had a presence in the Aravalis until I showed him the pictures of a leopard who had recently died in a road accident,” says she.
However, the bigger and the most important task of underpasses on the three highways to facilitate the wild animals to cross over safely from one side of the forest to another still remains. The three highways fragment the Aravalis and bisect the corridor used by the wildlife to traverse from Asola Wildlife Sanctuary in Delhi to Sariska in Rajasthan through Gurugram (Mangar-Bandhwari-Damdama).
The forest department, in a series of letters to the PWD, has requested for the construction of underpasses at certain identified locations for the safe movement of the wildlife on Gurugram-Faridabad Highway, but Rajeev Yadav, Superintending Engineer, PWD (Gurugram) says the paucity of funds is a major constraint.
“An underpass would cost around ₹8-10 crores. Even if the department has the funds, the priority would be to construct an underpass for the vehicular traffic at Gwal Pahari to decongest the intersection at the highway,” says Mr. Yadav.
Divisional Wildlife Officer Rajinder Prasad says the department is serious about the construction of the underpasses and the process would be kicked off with the fresh budget allocation in the upcoming financial year.
“We need an underpass at Manesar on NH-48 and two more near Pali Police Post and Bandhwari village on Gurugram-Faridabad Highway. Though a survey would be conducted to decide the exact location. We are determined to initiate the process in April this year,” says Mr. Prasad, adding that it is a must for the safety of both the wildlife and the motorists.
The forest department also has a plan to de-silt the three culverts on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway to allow the animals to cross over. Almost a year-old internal official communication to the office of Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) in this regard says that opening of the three culverts and two km fencing along the highway could put a complete check on the death of wildlife in road accidents on NH-48.
Ms. Rana argues that it is more about the will than the funds. “When animals like hyena or even a leopard dies in a road accident, it shows that there is something seriously wrong with our development model. The National Forest Policy calls for the creation of corridors to link the protected areas and funds are aside for the protection of wildlife in infra projects through ecologically sensitive zones, but still, nothing substantial has been done to prevent the unabated death of wildlife in road accidents in this region. It is really sad. I would rather make an appeal to the government to go a step further and declare this area as leopard reserve,” says Ms. Rana.
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