It takes a special sort of person to spend his life ensuring that animals don’t become roadkill. D. Rajkumar of the Wildlife Conservation Foundation in Mysore grew up with a spirit that was poised for battle. He was suspended for bringing a snake to class as a child and instead of giving up his interest in the reptile, he studied them and aced in the field of herpetology.
He also grew up being called a “good-for-nothing”. Instead of letting a label defeat him, he tweaked it, and made a life out of “doing good for nothing” in return. A snake bite almost succeeded in burying him in the ground so of course, he went on to rescue 6,400 snakes (87 king cobras) and loads of other wildlife, including muggers, monitor lizards, pangolins, deer, leopards, tigers, even elephants. It doesn’t then surprise me in the very least that Rajkumar pitched in for a battle that eventually led to a High Court making the historic decision to stop night traffic on two busy highways that threatened the wildlife of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, 80km from Mysore.
Excerpts from an email interview:
In 2001, I applied to the Karnataka Forest Department for permission to study birds in Bandipur for a book I went on to publish later. During this time, I happened to record a lot of roadkill, especially of reptiles and birds. I shared the findings with a friend, Mr. Guruprasad from Mysore, who suggested that the numbers showed the need for disciplined documentation.
In 2003, I started photo-documenting roadkill along NH67 and NH212 with location and species, while also spreading awareness among drivers using the road leading to Ooty and Sulthan Bathery. Friends rallied around, reporting roadkill regularly to me and towards 2006, I had enough to build a proper case for the forest department to give this serious thought. I met the then Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) and the district administration to consider putting a break in the night traffic hours but it was all in vain.
I spent the early days of documentation with Mayukh Chaterjee, who was working with bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) for his Ph.D and Vishwa Aradhya who worked with the forest department in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. One day, a few boys from one of the lodges brought an injured spotted deer to me. It had been mauled by stray dogs outside Bandipur and they wondered if I could help. I sutured the wound and after a while, the animal was well enough to be released. We were watched by a resident group of langurs.
One evening, we were at our usual tea spot under a tree and a female langur brought her infant down from the tree, dropped it near my leg, moved away and watched us. The infant was dead, a roadkill victim, and the mother had been carrying it around and clearly hoped I could do something for it. The three of us have never forgotten how we felt that day, and I decided then that I would try and bring an end to the roadkills somehow.
Around 2007, I sent a petition to the DCF, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the Deputy Commissioner of Chamarajanagar to stop traffic during the night. The forests are filled with nocturnal activity so this would bring relief to the wildlife.
The fact that roadkill numbers were higher than poaching numbers caught the attention of the bureaucratic group, which was astonished to see the number of dead wildlife along both NH67 and NH212. It had the desired effect—the roads were closed—but only briefly. Political pressure saw the roads reopened in a week. We didn’t give up. A lawyer submitted my report to the court. Other organisations, like Wildlife Conservation Society, were also working tirelessly for this cause and were also part of the battle. Based on all these combined efforts, the roads were closed in a historic decision by the High Court.
Friends and forest staff helped with information and even commuting drivers would report incidents. We were able to record roadkills that were visible lying next to the road, but some animals, even after being hit, would slowly move inside the forest thicket and these would go unrecorded.
When we presented our findings, people were surprised to see so many dead animals, but nobody agreed to close the road. Even the media disagreed on showing dead animals in their shows, but slowly that changed and lot of slideshows and news articles and TV shows convinced the public of the gravity of the situation. When the highway was finally closed, I felt proper justice had been done.
NH67 runs from Mysore via Bandipur and runs 12.5 kilometres inside the park. NH212 runs from Mysore to Sulthan Bathery and runs 17.5 kilometres inside the park. The High Court gave a favourable decision and both the national highways were closed; the case was challenged in the Supreme Court and although the verdict is pending, initial feedback gives me reason to hope.
Friends like Varchasvi Shankar and Srinivas D.S. who own a software company called V2Soft have been the backbone of WCF since its inception in 2007. I have been running with my begging bowl to numerous organisations for funds to support my cause. For now, whatever I get is okay, but if I am to expand my work, I’ll just have to wait.
I just finished an ecological study of Bandipur Tiger Reserve. I want to work in different areas where roads are a biological barrier to wildlife. After the roadkill project, the National Tiger Conservation Authority got in touch with me to look into tiger deaths. I had been sending reports and post mortems after tiger deaths due to cattle poisoning in some parts of Bandipur and Nagarhole. There was recognition of the serious nature of my work and now I have been part of around 39 tiger death post-mortems.
If it is possible to save the tiger, it is possible only in this country. I work with youngsters from villages as they are the stakeholders in saving wildlife. I don’t want to isolate people from conservation, so that the future is taken care at the grassroots level itself.
The education department must include mandatory environment education with baseline information and practicals. This will help more than viewing environment channels as entertainment, or visiting wildlife parks for photos of the tiger and naming her “Chameli” on Facebook. The way we use our gadgets, our phones, we should also use natural history. Generations can pass on this knowledge to save our forests, but for that we need to sacrifice time and help others who are working tirelessly for causes. Respect wildlife – big, small or medium, respect life and let it live. Saving wildlife is not a luxury but essential for your own life.
I have no idea when death will come knocking. I have survived one road accident, one elephant trampling, two honey-bee attacks, and two snake bites after which I was actually declared dead by the doctor. I was at a government hospital, unable to afford a private one. I was able to hear voices but unable to speak. Then there was darkness for a while, like when you go to a theatre and the lights dim; it all went dark within. I woke up later, doubly motivated because of my survival. It reiterated that this is my purpose to live, I am destined to save species.
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Editor’s Note: This article has been edited and republished on March 20, 2015. The edited copy recognises the involvement of other organisations that played a vital role in lobbying for the historic court decision to close the highway. Having said that, the edited copy affirms the tremendous efforts that D. Rajkumar put in for the battle. He has worked tirelessly and with integrity towards documenting and working on the field from as early as 2004 and his findings have been pivotal for the successful and historic decision. Among the documents we have reviewed are testimonials and reports from the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, A.K. Verma; and Sir Panduranga Hegde (veteran environmentalist responsible for bringing the Appiko movement to India, who has worked with Rajkumar on the field and had invited him to present his work on Bandipur at the 2014 People For Western Ghats conference). These reports, stamped by the Forest Department, attest to D. Rajkumar’s systematic documentation and submission of roadkill reports from 2004 onwards. This article aims at recognising this man’s silent efforts to ensure the safety of the wildlife of the region.
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.