Nilgiris, India — From his lookout atop an 80- foot-tall tree, Gopal could see the forests in three states burning simultaneously last fortnight. Even though fires are not unusual at this time of year in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR) a contiguous forest belt of about 5,500 sq km on the Western Ghats, spread across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka Gopal hadnt ever seen anything like this before. I saw four places burning across the forests of Mudumalai (in Tamil Nadu), Bandipur (in Karnataka) and Wayanad (in Kerala). This is the season of fire here. Almost every other day, a fire breaks out. We are filled with anxiety each day, not knowing where the next fire will break out, he says.
Fires ripping through the NBR have affected an estimated 3,000 acres since January this year. In the first few months of every year, the winds are strong and dry, and trees in this dry deciduous forest belt shed their leaves. In such conditions, even a spark can set off an inferno. Two of the sanctuaries here, Tamil Nadus Mudumalai and Muthunga in Keralas Wayanad district, have been closed down due to the fire threat. Last week, fire gutted the wooden sleepers on the Ooty-Mettupalayam railway line, forcing the authorities to suspend services of the historic Nilgiri Mountain Railway. A high-tension electricity post caught fire near Gudalur, disrupting power supply in the area.
Muthunga is where 30-year-old Gopal works, one of the hundreds of temporary forest staff deployed annually to tackle the first-quarter menace to the NBR. As a fire watcher, Gopal, whose tribal upbringing has sharpened his sense of the forest, must remain at his treetop post from morning till evening and report any outbreaks. Able to detect a fire miles away and pinpoint its exact location, Gopal alerts the staff in the nearby Muthunga forest office. They, in turn, inform the range office nearest the affected area, whichever state it falls in. Increased cooperation between the forest departments of the NBR states have mitigated the damage in several fire incidents.
With an estimated 5,000 Asian elephants, the NBR is the largest elephant corridor in the country. The elephant population is so high that even during our visit, despite its being in the off-season, we could spot small herds grazing near the main roads in Mudumalai and Bandipur areas. The NBR also has a sizable population of tigers, spotted deer, sambar, sloth bears and leopards.
The NBR is also home to over a hundred tribal hamlets, most often blamed by forest officials for the fires. The issue is a source of constant friction between the authorities and the forest dwellers. In Muthunga, in 2003, there was a violent clash between the police and the tribals, during which two people were killed. Illegal though the use of fire may be, for the tribals, it is integral to their lives. They have lived in these forests for centuries and the woods are their lifeline, supplying them fodder, firewood, honey, roots, tubers and medicinal plants. Indeed, the present state boundaries, carved out in the last century, have little significance for them, given that many have family living across the three NBR states. The regions tribals maintain close contact with each other. Each tribe speaks a distinct language, which sounds slightly different from each other, and they follow their own customs, distinct from the majority Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam-speaking populations in their respective states.
Officials, however, say the tribals set the NBRs wild shrubs on fire deliberately. Most fires occur near tribal hamlets, observes K Radhakrishna Lal, Assistant Wildlife Warden in Muthunga. This month alone, 17 incidents have been reported in Muthunga. Except for a couple of incidents that took place near the national highway, all were in the vicinity of the tribal colonies. According to forest officials in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the tribals set fire to any dense underbrush near their habitats, as the thickets hinder their movements and make it difficult for them to spot lurking wild animals. There are other reasons, says JA Kumar, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Bandipur National Park. The fresh grass that sprouts after a fire is good fodder for their cattle. Besides, when the forests are cleared of their undergrowth, it is easier to spot antlers (which deer shed periodically, leaving them strewn about the forest). The antlers fetch up to Rs 1,000 per kilogram.
Closer to the main roads, fires are caused by the negligence of tourists a discarded cigarette butt or the embers of a picnic bonfire. There were at least three such over the last few weeks close to the Mudumalai-Bandipur main road. Last week, officials in Mudumalai detained three persons from Bengaluru and registered a case against them under the Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882 for setting fire to forestland. The accused were later remanded. The sad thing about the incident was that all three were educated youth, says Rajeev Srivastava, Field Director, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. One of them said he lit the fire so he could take a picture of himself and his friends with the flames in the background. People are unaware that causing a forest fire is a serious offence. If booked under the Wildlife Act, its a non-bailable offence.
Srivastava, who has researched the impact of forest fire on the Nilgiris, says the frequent fires have destroyed the original character of the forests in this region. The fires affect the natural regeneration in the forest. We would have lost several species to the fires, he says.
Forest officilas in Mudumalai have launched an awareness campaign to prevent accidental fires. There are many signposts on Mudumalai road carrying slogans such as: No Picnic, No Parking, No Fire. Mudumalai sanctuary has been shut down to the public for the last two weeks and Muthunga closed on March 2 they are likely to be reopened in the first week of April, after the first spells of rain, expected in the end of March. In Mudumalai, a forest fire disaster management centre has also been opened recently.
An encouraging feature is the developing research in India on forest fires. Prof Raman Sukumar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, advocates controlled fires which involve periodically burning the biomass on the ground to pre-empt larger ones. Forest staff are setting fire to dry foliage and bushes on both sides of the main roads, sanitising a 20-to-30-foot area on either side. If there is no ground fire for years, then we run the risk of having canopy fires that can be even more devastating, he says. Canopy fires can destroy tall trees. He foresees such an eventuality if the biomass is allowed to build up on the ground. As it is, forests in the dry deciduous belt of the Nilgiris burn on an average once in three to five years.
Sukumar offers hope saying the fires may not have destroyed as many species as feared. In Mudumalai, he found that the number of species had increased from 72 to 79 over 20 years, though five major fires had ravaged the plot in this period. Sukumar suggests research on controlled fires be undertaken with the cooperation of the forest department and research institutions. It is a suggestion finding increasing favour among forest officials.