I crouched, almost flat on the ground, to take a wide angle photograph of the snake, crushed under a vehicle on the road that cuts through the Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka. That achieved, I went round the other way, grasping the snake by its tail, wanting to give the dead some dignity, place it by the side, in the forest... when it jerks, rears its head, swirls around...
It was a venomous snake - one of the four such species in India. A cobra. Girsh DV - colleague, conservationist, friend, guide - swiftly pushed my hand aside, whipped out his snake hook, and gently lifted the reptile. But, it was of no use, the cobra had gone limp, ebbed of life.
It was like a kick in my gut watching that snake die. I know most of my fellowmen and women believe that snakes are better dead than alive. But like most wild creatures, snakes will only attack when harassed, provoked or surprised. Left alone, they are largely harmless and rarely pose a threat to people. Besides, snakes occupy an important ecological niche as middle-level predators eating crop pests like rats and mice, and their rapid decline will have wider ecological consequences.
The cobra was the ninth dead snake I came across that day as we drove through National Highway 13 in Kudremukh. At least five species - the stunning neon green vine snake, rat snake, sand boa, bronze back tree snake, cobra, and (probably) the rare, endemic Malabar pit viper had been crushed almost beyond recognition. We saw other mortal remains - notably of the beautiful southern bird wing, the largest butterfly species in India. There have been many victims over time, including lion-tailed macaques, one of the most endangered primates of the world, and endemic to these parts; leopard, mouse deer, and the Indian bison, or gaur, the largest wild cattle in the world.
A four-feet high wall runs all along the highway, further aggravating the problem. It was constructed in 2013, without mandatory approvals under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Its presence in a protected sanctuary defies logic: how does an animal facing speedy vehicles head on escape when barricaded by a wall?
The other immediate threat is the plan to upgrade and expand the state highway connecting Horanadu-Sringeri-Dharmasthala that also cuts across the park.
Spread over 600sqkm, Kudremukh is one of the finest and last remaining stretches of the sholas, a unique mosaic of grasslands and montane evergreen rainforests of the high altitudes. It is also part of the Western Ghats, one of the top biodiversity hotspots of the world. If Kudremukh's endemic wildlife is to be protected, it is imperative to a) immediately demolish the wall, b) ban traffic at night, when animal activity peaks, and mortality is highest (c) no expansion or widening of the roads, and d) build aerial bridges (ropeways) across crucial points to allow arboreal creatures like the lion-tailed macaques to cross over.
The problem, though, is beyond Kudremukh. And road kills, while definitely disturbing, are just the visible impact of roads on wildlife. When a road opens up an area, it serves as an ancillary to further development. For example, the expansion of a road bisecting the Velavadar National Park in Gujarat is essentially to cater to the special industrial and investment zones coming up in the vicinity. Roads fragment already highly fragmented habitats, cutting off well-worn migratory paths of animals. They break tree cover and slice vegetation. They force behaviour change. A telling example is that of the hoolock gibbon, India's only ape species found in the north-east. The hoolock is an arboreal creature - amazingly agile on trees, using its long, dexterous arms to swing along tree branches. Its physical attributes are not adapted to walk. In the natural order of things, you wouldn't find them on the ground, where they are very vulnerable. Yet, I witnessed them alongside a road that wove through their forest, slashing the canopy cover - nervous, edgy, awkwardly scrambling on the ground to scurry across to safety.
Roads alter the ecology of the region, endangering wildlife populations. Like the road through the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary, which will irrevocably change the fragile hydrological conditions of this seasonal wetland, dooming the only nesting ground of the flamingos in the country.
A ministry of environment and forests-appointed expert committee, acknowledging that roads are one of the biggest threats to wildlife, recommended no new roads or their expansion in protected areas and their immediate vicinity; bypassing critical wildlife areas, and called for mitigation measures to reduce mortality on already existing roads in crucial wildlife habitats.
Yet, the ministry has chosen to ignore its own guidelines. A case in point is the road circumventing the northern border of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve breaking the connectivity of this important tiger landscape. Another glaring example of the utter disregard for wildlife, and the law, is the expansion of NH 7, slashing through the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves, discarding concerns put forward by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
At 4.42 million km (or 0.66km of highway for every sq km of land), India's road network is the second biggest in the world with a target to expand at an ambitious rate of 30km everyday. Roads spur the economy, but without forests, economic growth will not be sustainable either. It's imperative that ecological concerns are taken on board when roads are planned and built, and social and ecological impacts are considered.