Tigers are increasingly facing a threat from mining and this threat could intensify in the coming years if the focus on boosting this sector continues. The mining sector is currently high on the Indian government’s agenda to give an impetus to the slowing economy following the Covid-19 pandemic. While the adverse impacts of ongoing and proposed mining projects on local communities and ecologically sensitive ecosystems across India are well documented, these projects also hurt India’s national animal.

On July 28, India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar released the Status of Tigers Copredators and Prey in India 2018 report that goes into details of the tiger estimation numbers announced last year. While estimating India’s total tiger population at 2,967 in 2018, this latest report lists out the threats to tigers and their habitats. Among other threats like poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation due to infrastructure development projects is one of the major ones.

Of the total estimated tiger population, over 1,000 tigers, about 35% of the total, are outside the tiger reserves.

The 656-page report noted that many tiger reserves and protected areas in India are “analogous to small islands in a vast sea of ecologically unsustainable land uses of varying degrees” and that many “tiger populations are confined within small protected areas and some have habitat corridors that permit tiger movement between them”.

“… Most of the corridor habitats in India are not protected areas, and are degrading due to unsustainable human use and developmental projects … in a country with an increasing demand for land by an ever-growing population, conserving such a large carnivore demands innovative approaches to land use planning that maintains connectivity between tiger source populations in a metapopulation framework,” the report said.

Tiger reserves

In 1973, India had started Project Tiger, a national-level programme to protect the tigers, and since then the number of tiger reserves has increased from nine to 50, covering about 2.21% of India’s geographical area. The tiger area in the country is primarily divided into five landscapes – Shivalik Hills and the Gangetic Plains; Central India and the Eastern Ghats; Western Ghats; North Eastern Hills; and Brahmaputra Flood Plains and the Sundarbans.

Among them, Central India and the Eastern Ghats landscape alone is home to one-third of India’s total tiger population. The report emphasised that this landscape has “some of the prime tiger habitats of India and is home to the largest scheduled tribe population dependent on forestland” but “despite the high biodiversity value and conservation significance, the forests of this region are under immense pressure from mining (having the largest mining concentration), linear infrastructures, livestock grazing, NTFP [Non-Timber Forest Products] collection and insurgency”.

Derrick Brutel/Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The report said that tiger reserves like Satkosia (Odisha), Similipal (Odisha), Udanti-Sitanadi (Chhattisgarh), Sahyadri (Maharashtra), and Palamau (Jharkhand), which were isolated, have witnessed “forest loss or decline in prey encounter rates faced local extinction” and in many of these areas, “the loss in forest coincided with the mining activity, national and state highways and with disturbance caused by political insurgencies”.

It further notes that the wildlife habitats of the Central Indian and Eastern Ghats landscape are the most fragmented in the country and here “maximum flux in tiger occupancy has occurred with maximum patch extinctions as well as colonisations”.

“Some of the major protected areas within this landscape remain connected only through linear forest patches and these habitat connectivities are primarily threatened by agriculture, industrial and infrastructural development and are declining rapidly,” the report noted.

Similarly, in the Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains landscape in northern India, the Ramnagar forest division serves as a vital corridor for the big cat in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, which has the highest number of tigers among the 50 reserves. But despite it being such a critical corridor, the forest in this area is facing a serious threat from the mining activities.

Hurting corridor connectivity

“From Ramnagar Forest Division forest connectivity is continuous till the township of Haldwani. Forest connectivity of Haldwani division to the Shuklaphanta National Park of Nepal terai is maintained by the Gola corridor forests along with Nandhaur WLS and Champawat division,” the report said. “However, this corridor is severely impacted by the urban sprawl of Haldwani township, boulder mining and various human activities along with National Highway 87 and railway line to Kathgodam.”

The report emphasised that this corridor connectivity is almost lost, and tigers possibly use the forests of lower Himalayas to move eastward. It even emphasised that restoring the connectivity in the foothills and less hilly tracts of the Gola corridor is crucial for elephant movement that is currently almost curtailed and leads to conflict in the region.

While talking about the Western Ghats region, the report said that major threats to contiguous natural landscapes in this area are “mining, hydroelectric projects and infrastructure development” and these activities especially within and in close proximity to protected areas result in irreversible habitat loss and disruption of habitat corridors.

Abhirup De /CC BY-SA

It said that Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary (in the Western Ghats region) are connected to the tiger habitats of Goa which in turn is contiguous with Kali Tiger Reserve of Karnataka. “Within and around the corridors, changes in habitat quality coincide with mining activities (around the forest ranges of Mollem, Kulem, Malpon in Goa) …” it said.

Need for balance

Repeated evidence has shown that mining in India often impacts the local ecology or/and communities living around such areas. Thus the impact that mining activities are having on the habitat and survival of top predator species like tigers, as highlighted in the report, is significant.

As most of India’s mineral deposits are in and around forest areas, the impact of mining on conservation of wildlife in and around forests is significant. The wildlife gets disturbed and it leads to an increase in human-wildlife conflict impacting the local communities. The destruction of wildlife habitat also increases the possibilities of the spread of zoonotic diseases. Thus to ensure that transition of a mining area is just while protecting both communities and wildlife habitat assumes importance.

A senior environment ministry official, who wished anonymity, said the reality is that all the major mineral reserves including coal, uranium or others are under forests across India and thus they will always be under threat from mining. “But we have several successful examples where ongoing mining projects were either discontinued, not renewed or proposals for new mining projects were rejected due to ecological concerns,” the official said.

‘A matter of concern’

In line with what the environment ministry official said, the report noted that “poor and continued decline in tiger status in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha is a matter of concern.” The economy of these three states is heavily dependent on mineral extraction.

Sejal Worah, a conservationist and programme director with WWF India, explained that there is a “high degree of overlap between coal and mineral deposits and tiger habitats and corridors, particularly in central and northeast India”.

The report too expressed examples of overlap like the Pench-Satpura tiger corridor where the “habitat linkages between the tiger reserves of Pench and Satpura are through patchy forests intermixed with agriculture land, human habitation and mines”.

“Part of this corridor near Satpura, passes through the coal belt and is under intense pressure from mining infrastructure in the form of roads and railway lines that connect the coal-bearing region with industries,” the report said.

Said Worah: “Given the importance of maintaining habitat connectivity for tigers, we need to ensure that wildlife corridors, in particular, are not impacted by mining activities. In an ideal world, corridors and other high conservation value areas should be considered sacrosanct and off-limits for mining. Especially now that we know the links between deforestation and pandemics, all efforts should be made to avoid further deforestation and restore already degraded habitats including used mine areas. This requires political will, economic investment in nature conservation and fast-tracking the development use of alternatives.”

She, however, conceded that “all mining, no matter how well-executed, will have a negative impact on biodiversity by its very nature.”

“We also recognise that the extractives industry provides a lot of the raw material that is used for the production of many essential items that all of us use,” Worah said. “Therefore calling for a boycott of mining in all forest areas is probably unrealistic. We need to have a graded approach that takes into account economic imperatives as well as conservation priorities.”

Seemaleena / CC BY-SA

Future threats

The detailed 2018 tiger estimation not only highlights the threat from ongoing mining projects but also talks about proposed mining projects or the development of infrastructure that is being prepared to support the mining activities.

For instance, while talking about the Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary (in Odisha) and Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve (Chhattisgarh), the report noted that this region has a law and order problem due to insurgency and due to the large size of the forested habitat in this landscape, the area has potential for future tiger recovery through protection, restoration of law and order and management to augment prey.

“During the last four years, new road network and widening of existing road network traversing these corridors are being carried out so as to combat the insurgents and for the mineral extraction by the mining sector,” the report said. “Appropriate mitigation measures for wildlife passageways need to be thus planned and implemented for maintaining habitat connectivity in this landscape.”

Similarly, while discussing the tiger reserves of Similipal and Satkosia, the report said that they represent a unique lineage of tigers as “it is in this population that occasional melanistic tigers occur”.

“Tiger population in this block is severely depressed and is estimated to be around 18. Therefore, all efforts should be made to recover this population …,” the report said. “These areas have some of the prime habitats for tigers and elephants. However, this area has high mineral deposits and is earmarked for mining activities.”

The 2018 tiger status report further observed that the tiger population in the North Eastern Hills landscape is “genetically unique likely because of gene flow with south-east Asian tiger populations of Myanmar” and thus, the “North Eastern tigers have a great evolutionary significance and appropriate measures are needed to safeguard the habitat connectivity”. But warned that most states of the region are developing “infrastructural projects like roads, dams, hydroelectric projects and mining activities, which may potentially affect these fragile habitat links”.

Imran Siddiqui, who is assistant director (conservation science) with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, emphasised that the “single largest threat to the Central Indian Tiger Landscape is fragmentation due to coal mining over thousands of acres”.

“Many times the companies violate the conditions and do excess production making huge profits at the cost of natural ecosystems,” said Siddiqui. “As we already have surplus coal production, no new mining permissions should be given at least in the identified corridors. The Corporate Social Responsibility support for activities around corridors and restoration of corridors and adding lands in bottlenecks to consolidate corridors should be made compulsory for the existing coal mining operations.”

However, SP Yadav, who is member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, Indian government’s top body to work for protection and welfare of tigers, said that “as per the existing laws and guidelines, mining is not allowed in the core and buffer areas of tiger reserves or corridors. There could be some exceptional or rare case where public interest may take precedence and something is allowed.”

Meanwhile, the tiger status report highlighted that in Rajasthan’s area near Ranthambore, sand mining activities on river Banas are a constant threat to the only existing corridor between Kailadevi Wildlife Sanctuary and Ranthambore National Park. While talking about Umaria in Madhya Pradesh, it said that large scale mining of coal has caused extensive deforestation in this district.

Projects permitted

In the latest meeting on July 3 of the standing committee of the National Board for wildlife led by India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, a proposal for use of 63.13 hectares of forest land from Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh for construction of 132 kV transmission line section was recommended wildlife clearance. Another similar project for 132 kV transmission line section involving about 104 hectares in the buffer area of Sikkim’s Dampa Tiger Reserve was recommended clearance too.

The panel also cleared a proposal for use of around four-hectare land for limestone mining in an area (in Rajasthan’s Kota district) that is 7.5 km away from Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve and use of about 5.74 hectares forest land in Asifabad forest division in Telangana for four-laning of National Highway-363 in tiger corridor area linking Kawal, Tadoba and Indravati Tiger Reserves.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.