Govt Reports Warn How India’s New Forest Law Will Accelerate Fragmentation
Of Critical Animal Corridors
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, Article 14
September 11, 2023
India’s tigers, elephants and other wildlife live, mate & travel through
forests outside protected areas, but these corridors are already
dangerously fragmented, according to six reports from government-funded
agencies. Now, a new forest law cleared by Parliament in August 2023 will
make it easier to erase such corridors and similar forests not recorded as
forests nationwide, but particularly in the Himalayan region, where
wildlife habitats in entire states are at risk of decimation.
Kolkata: Its wooded hills, deep forests, lush lowlands and open scrub
country sprawl over 51,000 sq km, larger than Punjab. It is home to not
just 7.5 million people in Nepal and 50 million in India but 16 protected
areas across the two countries, linked through critical wildlife corridors.
This is the Terai-Arc Landscape (TAL), as scientists call it, home to a
rich diversity of wildlife, including predators, birds, aquatic mammals and
fish, and it encompasses southwestern Nepal and contiguous areas in India,
most of Uttarakhand and northern swathes of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
It was in the TAL in 2020 that scientists from the Wildlife Institute of
India (WII), an autonomous institution under India’s ministry of
environment, forests and climate change (MOEFCC), researched tiger
corridors in what is one of the world’s high priority tiger conservation
landscapes. What they found revealed not only how important these
corridors are to preserve tiger habitat but how many tigers lived outside
the protected areas.
Of the 219 individual tigers, India’s national animal, the scientists
identified in India’s TAL, the scientists determined the sex of 193: 89
males and 104 females. Of these, 113 were found inside protected areas and
80 (41.5%) outside protected areas, such as on land run by forest
departments and plantations. More females than male were spotted outside
These findings, published in 2022, re-emphasised the need to protect animal
corridors outside protected areas—corridors that allow animals to freely
roam from one protected area to the next—especially large mammals, such as
elephants and tigers, in search of food, mates and new territory.
The researchers identified 10 high, three medium and six “low conductance”
tiger corridors across TAL, all outside the protected areas, said the study
findings. A high conductance value implies greater use by animals.
“A corridor is not merely an animal movement path, but also a conservation
intervention,” said a National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the
WII’s 2014 report. Corridors “ensure genetic exchange through dispersal”
and “serve to guard against extinction risks caused by environmental and
man-made factors,” said the report.
In other words, these corridors are highways that not only sustain and
enrich wildlife but are crucial to their survival. Now, they are at
heightened risk of being opened up to human activity, from rail lines and
roads to roadside amenities. If—or rather when, said critics—that happens,
India’s already struggling wildlife and forests would be in further
New Law Threatens Wildlife Highways
It is India’s Forest Conservation Amendment (FCA) Bill, passed by both
houses of Parliament on 2 August, said critics and experts, that has
exposed vast tracts of forests outside protected areas to threats from
greater diversion and fragmentation.
Specifically, the new law exempts a “strategic linear project of national
importance and concerning national security” from seeking environmental
clearance to clear forests situated within a distance of 100 km from
international borders or the line of control (LoC), the de facto border
with Pakistan or the line of actual control (LAC), the de facto border with
Most parts of the TAL come within 100 km of India’s border with either
Nepal or China and are already highly fragmented due to villages and towns
and what is officially described as “linear infrastructure”, which refers
to highways, railways, canals, and hydel power dams.
The FCA exemption, said experts, could potentially endanger forests outside
protected areas across India’s Himalayan region, composed of two of the
world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots: the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot and
the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. The large majority of these areas are
within 100 km from India’s borders with China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar,
Bangladesh or Pakistan. The TAL is part of the Himalayan biodiversity
In India, protected areas include national parks, wildlife sanctuaries,
conservation reserves and community reserves. Tiger reserves are mostly
part of national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. The amended FCA does not
interfere with protected areas, which are governed by the The Wild Life
(Protection) Act, 1972. Any incursion into a protected area requires
approval from the National Board for Wildlife. Yet, even in and around
these protected areas, 680 projects have been approved between 2015 and
2020, according to a 2021 report by the Centre for Financial
Accountability, a New Delhi-based non-profit.
Forests outside protected areas, as we said, are very important to conserve
wildlife and apart from containing corridors are in themselves habitats for
a myriad of wildlife, which does not recognise officially marked
boundaries. That linear projects could fragment and further threaten
India’s tiger landscapes was reflected in the NTCA-WII’s joint, quadrennial
‘summary report’, Status of Tigers 2022, published in April 2023, and the
‘final report’, Status of Tigers, Co-predators & Prey in India, 2022,
published on 26 July 2023.
“Terai region is part of one of the 200 globally important eco-regions for
its intact large mammal assemblages,” said the summary report. “But this
fragile ecosystem is currently being rapidly converted and there are many
linear infrastructure projects, particularly expansion of roads.”
It cited the example of expansion of linear infrastructure projects since
2018 in the already congested and populated corridor between the western
and eastern part of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, through which a
Haridwar-Rishikesh ring road is being built, leaving it “functionally
extinct for large carnivore and elephant movement”.
“With tigers increasing outside Tiger Reserves in the landscape,
Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh need to invest in mitigating conflict with
tigers and mega herbivores,” the NCTA-WII summary report said.
The Danger To India’s Tigers
“Animal corridors in the state are getting fragmented or have become
nonfunctional due to increase in linear infrastructure projects,” said the
NTCA-WII’s July 2023 final report, referring to Uttarakhand, describing its
tiger population as “one of the densest in the world”.
The report estimated a population of 800 tigers in the Indian TAL, from
Rajaji National Park-Jim Corbett National Park-Ramnagar forest division in
Uttarakhand in the west, Pilibhit Tiger Reserve-Dudhwa National Park of
northern Uttar Pradesh at the centre and Valmiki Tiger Reserve in north
Bihar to the east. These tigers were part of “the largest population block
in the country”, the report said.
This is why the 2022 WII report mentioned at the start of this story
suggested “urgent management attention towards 2,707 sq km [of]
non-protected habitat” and “mitigation measures” to reduce the damage
caused by linear infrastructure development projects.
The WII-NTCA’s July 2023 ‘final report’ made similar observations with
regard to the northeast. “The corridor connectivity in the northeast hills
landscape matrix faces various threats, including the development of
numerous linear infrastructures, hydroelectric projects, and the depletion
of prey species from the forested patches,” the report said.
The report added that the connectivity between Tale Wildlife Sanctuary,
Yordi-Rabe Supe Wildlife Sanctuary and Mouling National Park in Arunachal
Pradesh is “weak and fragmented due to the development of linear
There are other reports (here and here) by government-funded autonomous
institutions that have recorded the adverse impact of linear projects in
the past, a fact that the government appears to have overlooked while
easing the regulatory path to build infrastructure through the new
amendments to the FCA.
A look at the protected areas of the Indian TAL reveals that as many as 20
tigers reserves and wildlife sanctuaries—nine in Uttarakhand, nine in Uttar
Pradesh and 2 in Bihar—fall within 100 km from the LAC with China or the
borders with Nepal, and so are the forest corridors that connect them.
The importance of forests outside protected areas is evident from the case
of Lansdowne, which the WII-NTCA’s July 2023 final report described as “an
important stepping stone” for tigers to move between Corbett and Rajaji
Tiger Reserves. It is also an important corridor for elephants.
“Tiger population here has been constant over the years but this division
has been under increasing pressure due to linear infrastructure
development. Agencies need to invest in green infrastructure to maintain
this crucial connectivity in this landscape,” said the report.
Tigers and elephants share the same landscape in India: 45% of elephants
live in designated tiger habitats and tigers use 40% of elephant corridors.
However, elephant reserves and corridors are only administrative divisions.
Tiger reserves are legal entities and those within 100 km from
international borders would now be stripped of protection under the FCA.
Corridors Already Lost
The loss of corridors may not only impact tiger survival but can also lead
to more human-wildlife conflict. As the WII-NTCA’s July 2023 final report
on tigers pointed out, the town of Ramnagar and “linear development” along
national highway (NH) 121, with resorts, towns and private farms along the
banks of the Kosi River in recent years, led to the loss of a traditional
wildlife corridor between Corbett Tiger Reserve and Ramnagar forest
division towards its east.
As a result, tigers took a different route: from Amangarh to Terai West and
then onwards to Ramnagar forest division. “This shift in tiger movement or
corridor will lead to negative interactions since these areas south of
Corbett are heavily populated areas with patches or islands of forests,”
the report said.
Similarly, a corridor between the Haldwani forest division in Uttarakhand
and the Shuklaphanta National Park of Nepal was “severely impacted by the
urban sprawl of Haldwani township, proposed Jamrani Multipurpose Drinking
Water Project, boulder mining, and human activities, along with National
Highway 87 and the railway line to Kathgodam”, said the July 2023 WII-NTCA
In the Terai East Forest Division, which serves as an “important link for
population dispersal between Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal”, the
loss of habitat due to encroachments “has been exacerbated by the linear
breakages in the forests resulting from the alignments of the Sharada canal
and Tanakpur-Khatima highway road,” said the report.
The northeastern states—with eight of India's 53 tiger reserves—have a
lower density of tigers compared to the Terai and central India, but they
are among the regions richest in biodiversity and home to 10 of India’s 33
All of Sikkim, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya fall within 100 km
of international borders. Only the central parts of Assam, south-central
parts of Arunachal Pradesh and northwestern parts of Nagaland remain beyond
Gibbons Threatened By Easier Approvals
A separate 2023 WII report on hoolock gibbons, the only ape species found
in India, says that arboreal animals—including many primate species groups
like gibbons, guenons, macaques, lorises and lemurs—“are especially
affected by these linear infrastructures as they break the natural canopy
cover and fragment their forest habitat”.
Hoolock gibbons are found in most northeastern states, especially Arunachal
Pradesh and Assam, and travel only through forest canopies, swinging from
one branch to another. The loss of such canopies restricts them to
fragmented patches of forest.
A senior West Bengal forest official, who spoke to Article 14 on condition
of anonymity, since he was not authorised to speak to the media, pointed
out that since the Wildlife Protection Act also mentions “areas linking one
protected area or tiger reserve with another protected area or tiger
reserve”, some critical corridors will still come under the purview of the
act and will require NBWL approval.
“Nevertheless, the overall process for getting approval would become easier
in the absence of the need to get forest diversion clearance under the
FCA,” the official said.
Certain tiger corridors are protected, but many are not even recognised as
such: the 2022 WII report identified 19 corridors in the Indian TAL but the
MOEFCC recognises only three corridors in the Shivalik Hills & Gangetic
Plains landscape, of which the Indian Terai is a part. It is only in these
corridors where the Tiger Conservation Plan, mandated under section 38V of
the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, applies and requires wildlife clearance
to cut forests, or “forest diversion” in official parlance.
Designing Animal Flyovers
According to a WII scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity because of
the sensitivity of the issue, given the government’s determination to open
more forests for development, legal protection for wildlife corridors “is
in a gray area and not clearly defined”.
“In the Terai landscape, there are places like Lansdowne and Ramnagar which
are just reserve forests but have more tigers than several tiger reserves,”
said the scientist. “Animals treat the entire belt as a continuous space.
Therefore, from a conservation perspective, the corridors connecting
protected areas are very important.”
Anamitra Anurag Danda, a social anthropologists and senior visiting fellow
at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation, a think tank, said exempting
forests from environmental clearance can increase pressure on protected
areas and could potentially endanger species by restricting their movements
due to further fragmentation of their habitats and corridors.
“However, these can still be addressed if the government works closely with
non-government wildlife organisations while planning projects in areas
serving as animal corridors,” said Danda.
Such infrastructure was recently created on NH-44 in the Seoni-Nagpur
stretch that runs through the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra wildlife corridor,
and is being created on the Delhi-Dehradun highway.
“Non-government organisations will henceforth have to play a more proactive
role in protecting critical animal corridors and will have to work in
coordination with multiple government departments, not only forest or
roadways,” said Danda.
The 2023 WII-NTCA final report laid bare the loss of corridors due to
linear projects across all tiger landscapes, including the crucial central
Indian landscape spread over Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.
The report said that central India holds the “genetically most diverse
population” of tigers in India because of extensive wildlife corridors
through forests, which were getting ever more fragmented.
Even though these regions lie beyond 100 km from international borders, the
new exemption in the FCA to forest land lying alongside existing rail lines
or public roads providing access to habitation, rail or roadside amenities,
“up to a maximum size of 0.10 hectare in each case”, would exacerbate the
situation there, said experts.
A May 2023 report by the New Delhi-based think-tank, Vidhi Centre for Legal
Policy, pointed out that the National Highways Authorities of India (NHAI)
includes food court, restaurants, dedicated area for promoting local
artisans up to an area of 1000 sq ft and landscaping as mandatory “roadside
amenities'”. The Uttar Pradesh public works department’s description of
such amenities includes dhabas, parking for cars, buses and trucks,
open-air rest areas with benches and tables, and dormitories for drivers.
“These facilities virtually provide townships along highways and the lack
of specifics with respect to the frequency of these facilities along such
linear projects makes vast forest areas susceptible,” said the Vidhi
The 2023 WII-NTCA final report said that connectivity in the central Indian
landscape “remains the most crucial factor” for the future. It emphasised
that the future of tigers in this landscape can be secured only if wildlife
overpasses or underpasses, as constructed for NH-44, could be implemented
“for all linear developments arising here”.
“Bandhavgarh and Sanjay Tiger Reserve are present on the northern side of
Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, and the corridor between them is heavily
fragmented by linear infrastructural structures like SH-9, SH-22, and
NH-43, human settlements, and agricultural land,” said the report, with
regard to Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh.
There are other reports from government institutions that echo similar
concerns, such as a 2022 report from the government auditor, the
Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on the conservation
management programme in Madhya Pradesh.
The CAG report said that within many protected areas, roads, railway lines
and electricity transmission lines cut across the landscape, fragment
wildlife habitats and often kill animals, endangering many species already
severely affected by development.
“Major projects, such as dams, railways and roads, constitute predominant
linear infrastructure. With plans to substantial expansion, they pose the
greatest threat of harmful impact on wildlife,” the CAG report said, adding
that clearance to widening NH-7 between Nagpur in Maharashtra and Seoni in
Madhya Pradesh in April 2018 was “causing irreparable damage, fragmentation
and destruction to the wildlife habitat”.
The CAG report said before the widening of NH7, which passed through Pench
Tiger Reserve, the “recommendation of diverting the NH-7 through Chhindwara
was ignored, causing irreparable damage, fragmentation and destruction to
the wildlife habitat”.
The WII-NTCA’s final report pointed out that the forest corridor between
the Pench and Satpura Tiger Reserves, already faces a major threat from
habitat fragmentation due to “expanding linear infrastructure”.
The CAG’s findings concur. It referred to the construction of a railway
line through the Satpura Tiger Reserve and said the forest division
concerned “was unaware about mitigation measures taken in the construction
of the rail line”, and the field director of the reserve did not ensure the
conditions stipulated while granting permission to the project.
In Chhattisgarh, the WII-NTCA’s final report said that forests connecting
the Udanti-Sitanadi tiger reserve and Indravati tiger reserve through the
Kanker and North Kondagaon forest divisions “are fragmented due to linear
infrastructure forming a bottleneck”.
In Maharashtra, the corridor connectivity between Satpura and Melghat Tiger
Reserve was “highly disturbed” by a railway line between Betul and Itarsi,
the widening of NH46 between Betul and Obedullaganj, NH 47 between Betul
and Indore, and Satpura Thermal Power Plant situated adjacent to Betul.
The report said that a proposed gauge conversion of the railway line
connecting Akola and Khandwa, passing through the core habitat of the
Melghat Tiger Reserve, “will severely affect the integrity of the inviolate
area,” which is why “an alternative route has been requested”.
The 2023 WII report described connectivity in the northern Karnataka
landscape, including Kudremukh, Pushpagiri, Talakaveri, and Brahmagiri,
extending to Wayanad, to be “in a precarious state”. Calling the linkage
“vital” for dispersal of tigers from the Nilgiris to the northern Western
Ghats, the report said it was threatened by that linear infrastructure,
such as two national and seven state highways.
Forests Not Recorded As Forests
Tushar Dash, an independent researcher focussing on conservation of forests
and wildlife, said that the amendments keeping outside the ambit of the FCA
the forests that were not notified, meaning formally recognised as forest
by the government, or recorded by any government, such as the deemed
forests, will leave vast tracts of forest without any protection from
“Deemed forests form a significant portion of forests that are used and
conserved by local communities for decades but are not recorded as
forests,” said Dash. He referred to the Supreme Court’s 1996 Godavarman
judgment that brought all such forest lands under the ambit of the FCA and
the Forest Rights Act 2006, further expanding the definition of forests and
“But the current amendments will rob such deemed forests and
community-conserved forests of every protection,” said Dash, citing the
example of Odisha, where a significant chunk of forest in Nayagarh,
Mayurbhanj, Sundergarh, Kalahandi, Rayagada and other districts have been
community conserved forest for decades but are not officially regarded as
forests, even though they serve as critical wildlife habitats and corridors
connecting protected areas.
A Maharashtra-based environment advocacy, Kalpavrishk, pointed out that the
exemption given to “survey, such as, reconnaissance, prospecting,
investigation or exploration including seismic survey”, serves as “another
dangerous insertion, which would open vast tracts of wildlife rich forests
tiger areas, elephant habitats, biodiversity hotspots across the country
for scoping, prospecting and surveys for coal, iron ore, diamond, lithium
and other mining, as well as for oil”.
Currently, such activities require approval under the FCA. By removing this
safeguard, the amended law indicates “that all our forests are available
for development activities without environmental safeguards”, said the
Kalpavriksh report. “This is a dangerous intent to convey through forest