Similipal is up in flames; Wild animals enter human areas after loss of habitat; Forest fire rages for over 10 days; One-third of Similipal National Park gutted
These are a few headlines from the front page of some prominent national dailies and popular web portals recently thanks to a strongly worded tweet by Mayurbhanj princess Akshita M Bhanj Deo.
Had the disturbing picture not been tweeted by her, many wouldn’t have the inkling about the devastating fire in Similipal.
Similipal, Asia’s second-largest biosphere reserve covering an area of 2,750 sq. km, in Mayurbhanj district is up in flames for the past several days. But it is not just Similipal, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) reveals that over 5,000 forest fire incidents were recorded in Odisha between February 22 and March 1, 2021 – the highest in the country for the same period.
Though fire services personnel and forest department officials are giving their best to douse the flame with the help of locals at various pockets, they are yet to contain the fire fully. Every day fresh cases of forest fire are being reported in the state.
At a time when the officials struggle to contain the fire in forests across the state, some wildlife experts, naturalists share their concern with Sunday POST and speak about the precautions to be taken to prevent such devastation.
Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of Wildlife Society of Odisha, attributing rampant poaching is one of the main reason behind devastating fire in Similipal for last few weeks, says “Situation has turned so grim that we cannot douse the fire now. We can only wait till an unseasonal showers like the one that lashed the reserve area last week or the arrival of monsoon to contain fire. Though we are very much concerned about the well-being of flora and fauna, we are helpless. It has already spread into a large area. We can only wait patiently till it is doused off on its own or by the rains. Forest department had to remain prepared to deal with the situation as forest fire has become an annual event. Besides, the department was supposed to involve locals and the community so that it can be extinguished before it spread into large areas.”
Giri Rao, a Community Forest Rights activist, who works for the rights of forest dwellers, says “Similipal holds 90 per cent chances of catching fire every year and between the months of February and April. So, the government should chalk out an action plan well in advance contain the fire rage as part of its preparedness. Secondly, forests are an important natural resource and render a variety of ecological services. Therefore, it is our duty to prevent the irreversible damage. The Government of India had introduced a well-defined Act, known as CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) to compensate the loss of forest area and to maintain the sustainability. Unfortunately, the state government is not using fund sanctioned under CAMPA for the conservation of forests. The state government has received an allocation of Rs 9,000 crore under CAMPA. But the government is not using it. Young activists of Biju Bahini and SHGs can play a big role in saving the forests.
He further says tribal communities living in forest areas often work together to protect the forest. However, the forest department personnel should take them into confidence and involve them for the cause.
Prakash Mardaraj, IUCN, Species Survival Commission Member, is of the opinion that the authorities concerned have to focus on just stopping the spread, rather than putting the fire out. The spread can, for instance, be contained by digging trenches around the fire. The priority should be to save lives.
He is concerned about insects and invertebrates. “Insects and invertebrates are the first to die due to heat and smoke. Also eggs, which were laid in trees, are destroyed. Forest fires increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect and climate change. The danger continues even after the fire: the soil, without plants, turns susceptible to erosion by rainwater, especially on steeply sloped areas,” says Mardaraj.
He continues: “Rigorous punishment for people illegally entering into forest areas is the need of the hour. Culprits are manipulating WPA1972 Forest Act. The forest officials should be equipped with modern facilities and technologies to check fire incidents, poaching and illegal activities inside PAs and also RFs provided.”
Seconding Giri, former chief wildlife warden of Odisha Saroj Kumar Patnaik says “Similipal is burning and reducing many medicinal plants to ashes. Many species, including the endangered and scarce ones, have perished in the wildfire. I am bleeding inside watching homeless wild animals helplessly.”
Before the commencement of fire seasons, fire lines should be created to prevent fire spreading to other pockets, he suggests. In many cases, People living in the fringe areas of the forest collect Mahua flowers to make country liquor. Mahua flowers are collected from the forest ground in March-April when the flowers shed on their own. They set the dry leaves and bushes on fire to keep the ground clean to collect flowers. So, they are the ones who mostly responsible for such fires, the ex-wildlife warden points out.
Asked on how the forest fire can be minimised, he says, “The forest dwellers can’t be checked from entering the forest but can be given warning not to cause harm to the forest. Besides, the forest officials should be provided with firefighting equipment and awareness drives should be launched among the fringe villagers to save the flora and fauna.”
Rights activist Ghasiram Panda says, “Forest fire is nothing new and people were used to it. When I saw glowing flames in forest during my childhood, the seniors would explain that monkeys were illuminating the forest for their marriage ceremony. Then the villagers used to play an important role to extinguish fire. However, things have changed and locals are no longer involved in it. Making things worse, forest department does not have the required logistics to put out the fire. They now have to seek the help from local communities in this regard.”
Besides, the administration, with the advent of fresh technologies, is now able to learn the status of forest fire on a daily basis. However due to apathetic attitude, the officials have not been able to ensure people participation in controlling forest fire. The Panchayat Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act and Forest Rights Act (FRA) have created enough scope for this. Hopefully the task force recently formed will take this aspect into consideration, he adds.
Possible causes of forest fire
Many forest fires start from natural causes such as lightning which set trees on fire. However, rain extinguishes such fires without causing much damage.
Fire is also caused when a source of fire like naked flame, cigarette or bidi, electric spark or any source of ignition comes into contact with inflammable material.
During Akhand Shikar or mass hunting excursion the tribals clear the ground bushes and dry grasses by setting them on fire to enhance their visibility in the forest.
The Adivasis, to safely collect minor forest produce, set the ground on fire to help them see animals, especially carnivores such as tigers, to thwart any possible attack on them.
Forest Fire, a necessity
Forest fires are one of the natural and necessary parts of the ecosystem. And, when fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and encourage the growth of native species. Controlled forest fires have been essential for forest growth, but uncontrolled forest fire can cause devastation by engulfing and destroying healthy, thick forest cover in no time