India — Summers here and so is the threat of forest fires that pose a grave risk to our biodiversity and natural heritage.
The azure winter skies shall soon give way to the parched distemper of blazing days, and as the heat builds up, more and more areas of forest land shall succumb to the dessicating effect of temperature. Streams and rivers shall soon run dry and the grasslands and deciduous landscapes will wear the brown and ochre coats of summer. This drying effect renders forests and grasslands susceptible to fires. And, like every summer, our forests shall be consumed yet again in the annual pyre. It is that time of the year when the Forest Department has to be on constant vigil against forest fires and wage a ceaseless battle against these devastating occurrences that cause such rampant destruction of wildlife and biomass.
The cause… Contrary to popular belief, fires that are so common an annual occurrence in the deciduous forests and the grasslands of the Western Ghats are seldom a result of natural causes. These devastating blazes are more often the result of an accidental or deliberate insult by man. The multiplicity of causes for this annual phenomenon needs careful understanding and appropriate designing of management strategies.
One of the most common causes of forest fires is herders and pastoralists deliberately setting alight vast tracts of grassland and forest undergrowth annually, under the impression that this practice promotes the growth of grass. This belief, though unsound and scientifically unsubstantiated, continues to prevail and dictate patterns of forest use in our country.
In areas dominated by coffee plantations, the few remnant tracts of forests and grassland unfailingly bear the brunt of fires, lit by planters trying to render their acreage impermeable to anticipated fires, but gone astray due to lack of proper management and control.
A rather disturbing reason for forest fires is poachers setting alight tracts of forests or grasslands with the intention of driving the hidden wildlife out for easy trappings and hunt down animals displaced from their cover. Usually no effort to extinguish the fire is undertaken, resulting in large tracts of land being consumed in an uncontrolled blaze.
This practice exemplifies the multi-pronged consequences of unchecked wildlife crimes and calls for strengthening of all areas of protection and surveillance by the Forest Department.
Another common cause of forest fires is the negligence of people who visit the jungle for purposes of fuel wood or bamboo collection or for harvesting certain seasonal minor forest produce. Ignorant and irresponsible tourists are also to be blamed, as they sometimes leave behind an incompletely extinguished camp fire or a careless cigarette.
A more ominous cause of these fires is retaliatory behaviour by dwellers of settlements within or around protected areas. This usually is the result of altercation between the people and the Forest Department on a multitude of issues.
…and effect The most obvious and immediately discernible effect is the widespread destruction of wildlife and biodiversity that results from forest fires. Repeated forest fires potentially harm vegetation dynamics and disturb trophic structure. It leads to the perpetuation of more fire hardy, weedy species that soon overwhelm the natural undergrowth. This can in turn affect the feeding habits of numerous insects and birds and the foraging patterns of herbivores. A number of animals and plants inevitably perish in the inferno. For those that survive, the burnt patches offer little or no food resources, especially when grasslands that are an important source of fodder for the herbivores during the summer months, get burnt.
In cases of large bodied animals like the elephant, that needs up to 200 kilos of food daily, this entails moving out to areas with more food sources, leading to situations of man-animal conflict.
Fire in grasslands also affect scores of small mammals and reptiles that rely on this habitat for food and shelter. Many ground nesting birds have their nests and eggs destroyed and over the years this can severely threaten their survival. The birds of prey that subsist on these smaller animals and birds are in turn affected by the loss of their food base over time. Rodents, mongoose, civets and such smaller ilk too die in the fire.
An important long-term consequence of repeated fires in the shola grassland system is the shrinkage over time of the evergreen sholas that act as giant sponges, soaking up rain water and slowly releasing it through perennial streams, joining to form mighty rivers that course through the peninsula, feeding the millions dependant upon it. Loss of sholas implies loss of vital catchments of life giving rivers.
Remedial measures The most important step is to secure the forest against the spreading of fire. Creation and maintenance of fire lines by the Forest Department is essential. Employment of an adequate number of fire watchers in the protected areas and ensuring daily beats is vital to ensure early detection and control. Fire fighting drills should also be organised.
Volunteers should be encouraged to participate and they should be trained to watch for and manage fire. People living within and around forests need to be educated about the deleterious effects of fire.
Tourists should be given stringent instructions about safe practices and trekkers should be accompanied by a guard. Strict vigil against unauthorised entrants, miscreants and poachers should be maintained as a matter of routine. Any negligence or illicit activity needs to be duly punished.
Scientific studies have proven that the current fire regime of the Western Ghats poses a severe and persistent conservation threat to forests both within and outside protected reserves. Hence it is an uncompromising need to prevent and control these forest fires that pose such a grave risk to our biodiversity and natural heritage.