Protection of Wild Elephants and the Inter-State Roads in Wayanad:
Need for a Careful Appraisal and Corrective Interventions
by Sathis Chandran Nair June 2009

Malabar coast north or Ponnani up to Mangalore had been the destination of maritime traders for countless centuries in the past. The fabled tropical forest produce, specifically pepper, was the most sought after commodity from Malabar. The table land of Wayanad rises up abruptly close to and east of this coastal stretch. But it slopes down gently towards east and merges with Mysore plateau or the base of the Nilgiris. A considerable portion of the valuable hill produce reaching the ports of Malabar used to come down from the same Wayanad Ghats and forests. Naturally trade routes extended both from the west and from the east towards Wayanad. Military movement, particularly since the advent of western European colonial powers since the late 15th century also extended along the same routes. After the defeat of the Mysore Muslim rulers Wayanad came directly under the control of the British. Timber extraction, particularly teak wood by the British lead to the expansion of the road network in Wayanad. The momentum of road construction increased still further due to the Second World War. Motor vehicles also became common. Extensive colonisation of Wayanad forests by plains people especially from Travancore opened up the last large forested tracts of Wayanad resulting in further expansion of road network. More powerful machines and the thrust of independent India’s Five Year Plan development laid down a fine mesh of motor roads right across Wayanad.

The most important victim of this road construction was the forest ecosystem in Wayanad. Extensive fragmentation of forests also disrupted wildlife habitat. Road access resulted in more extensive and intensive extraction of all forest resources particularly timber and bamboo. This resulted in severe habitat degradation. Damage to watersheds and destabilisation of terrain were also the consequences of road building.

At present there are four all-weather roads linking up Kerala Wayanad with the western midlands and the coast. There is one road link from Wayanad through the Gudalur area of Tamil Nadu towards the southeast to the Nilambur valley in Kerala. There are four more roads partially existing or proposed crossing through the western escarpments of Wayanad. Similarly two such partially existing roads are proposed to be completed towards south providing access to the Nilambur plains. There are powerful political as well as commercial interests working behind the local pressure groups demanding the opening up of these roads. The main Kozhikode-Wayanad-Mysore inter-state highway which is regularly prone to landslide damage during monsoon has two proposed alternative alignments under serious consideration. There are six existing main roads passing from Wayanad towards the east, three into Karnataka and three into Tamil Nadu. There are a few secondary roads from the southeast corner of Wayanad linking up with the Gudalur part of Tamil Nadu. All these roads do not traverse forest tracts but all the remaining forest tracts in Wayanad have roads passing through them and most of the fresh proposals are also through fragile forests. None of the Ghat roads traversing extremely fragile forests have any specific measures to protect the forests or the stability of the road. Six important west flowing rivers in Kerala have their upper catchments in these Wayanad Ghats damaged by the Ghat roads.

The most important road passing through Wayanad is the Calicut-Sulthan Bathery-Gundalpet-Mysore National Highway No:212 which has the highest density vehicle movement, especially night traffic. Over the years there has been an exponential growth in vehicular movement along the Calicut-Mysore road. The rapid expansion of the IT industry along the Mysore-Bangalore axis had added further impetuous to it. The present tourism boom has become the veritable last straw on the camel’s back as far as the wildlife habitat potential of this tract. Apart from goods transport, very large number of overnight luxury buses plying from the various towns in Kerala to Bangalore and Mysore and back contribute substantially to the night traffic on this road. There is at present no restriction in the vehicular movement, no speed breakers or adequate warning signs indicating the possible presence of wildlife on the road.

A critical aspect of the present situation is the vulnerable location of the forests along this road extending from near Muthanga in Kerala particularly up to Mule Hole in Karnataka State border and for some more distance towards east. Haphazard clearance of forest in the past for eucalyptus and teak plantations along this stretch, tribal settlements, enclosures of revenue lands, the particular lay of the land in here and the position of the only perennial river in this part of Wayanad i.e. Noolpuzha have unwittingly conspired to create a very vulnerable and dangerous bottleneck for all the large mammal movement along the narrow belt of forest left here. This strip is the only habitat link between Mudumalai, Bandipur and Kerala Wayanad wildlife havens.

Rapidly changing landuse patterns in Kerala, the rapid urbanisation of the till recently plantation economy based rural hinterlands of Wayanad, unregulated tourism often labelled ecotourism and even the irresponsibly dug elephant trenches using the NREGS have collectively disrupted elephant movement in this extremely vital part of the habitat of the largest population of Asiatic elephant in South India. Day time tourism pressure especially in Muthanga and Tholpetty both located along major inter-state routes particularly during the summer season when the forest fires reduce forage availability in the already degraded forest along with the water scarcity resulting from the desertification of these catchment areas of Kabini puts tremendous pressures on the migrating elephant population. The ever present threat of poaching also adds to the woes of the wild elephant.

1. It is urgently necessary to restrict all vehicle movement along the three most important inter-state routes at least for a few limited hours (Between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. within the forest tract).
2. Limit the speed of vehicles by installing speed breaks, humps and by conducting checks by forest patrols.
3. Put up enough sign boards to warn vehicles for the possibility of encountering wild animals and the necessity to drive carefully and slowly. This caution is necessary during the day time also.
4. Relocate the tourism zone from the two critical habitats namely; Muthanga and Tholpetty.
5. Through ecorestorative measures enhance the carrying capacity of the habitat, in particular in these two locations and in general in the entire Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary which is the wetter part of the Protected Area complex.
6. Work out a long-term perspective plan for harmonising road transport, habitat and wildlife protection along this part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. It may be desirable to block some of the existing routes and relay shorter routes through non-forested tracts or through forests less critically required by large mammals.