India — It is easy to assume that forest fires are destructive. But a closer examination proves that when managed properly they arent just beneficial, but essential
Two weeks ago, while we were researching the spread of lantana, an invasive plant, a fire broke out in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Activities around habitat management, anti poaching patrolling and even tourism in Bandipur and the neighbouring ranges came to a standstill as the staff, volunteers and local villagers rushed in to quell it. Almost simultaneously a fire broke out in Nagarhole, and the State of Karnataka seemed to be up in arms. Headlines screamed Verdant Bandipur devastated by fire, Bandipur fire sparks off conspiracy theories.
Blame followed on the heels of panic. Politicians, wildlife activists and NGOs accused the forest department; the Nagarhole field director blamed NGOs. Villagers were accused and arrested, the CBI came in to investigate. HC Kantharaju, the field director of Bandipur says, We did our best, but there were fires in multiple locations at the same time. Our staff suppressed the first fire, but the dead bamboo clumps started blazing in other places. The fire goes high and sparks fly everywhere, making it nearly impossible to control.
And this happens almost every summer. Last year, the then Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan was even asked a question in Parliament about the increasing number of forest fires across the country. Amidst this pandemonium, broader debates about fires are all but forgotten.
It is easy to assume that the long-term effects of fires are devastating. Flames that can reach 50 feet destroy all that comes in the way the grasses, the shrubs, saplings, even entire trees. Arboreal mammals like langurs and malabar squirrels sometimes die horrible deaths. Wildlife activists believe that since fires are never natural, they have to be bad and are inevitably started off by some locals.
Natural vs unnatural
But every story has another side that risks being lost in all the noise. Firstly, scientists today agree that natural and pristine forests dont exist. All the forests in the world have at some point in their history been significantly altered by people. Even the Amazon rainforest has evidence of extensive human settlements and modifications starting 4,000 years ago. Closer home, indigenous people living in our protected areas have been burning forestland for centuries, in some places up until the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 when it became illegal. The pristine, core areas and critical tiger habitats we see and value today are often a product of this burning legacy. For pastoralists, the burning allowed new grass to sprout, which was good for their livestock. And for hunter-gather communities, burning provided more grass for the herbivores, which they in turn could hunt as food.
Good for tigers even
We seem blissfully unaware that forest fires are good for mammals, including our coveted tigers. Fires are used extensively in some of the best known wildlife areas the Maasai Mara and Serengeti in western Africa, Kruger in South Africa, the Great Plains in central North America, and even habitats across Europe. Fires create heterogeneity and patchiness in a landscape, which enhances overall biodiversity. They open up forests and shift them towards grasslands, which support much higher mammal densities than closed forests.
A thick rainforest (like parts of the Periyar Tiger Reserve) may support as little as one tiger every 100 sq km, but a grassland (like Kaziranga, where the entire park is burnt every year) can support over 30 tigers in the same area. The anti-fire lobby may raise the natural argument that Kaziranga is naturally a grassland whereas Bandipur is a dry deciduous forest. There is some merit in recognising different management regimes in different forest types, but again the idea of natural is ambiguous. The Brahmaputra floodplain was grassland because the river would periodically flood and deposit silt quite literally moving the land around, denying trees a chance to grow. Now with people occupying most lands other than the park, the natural flow of the river is limited, and Kaziranga cant be moved around. If the park is not burnt every year, trees will establish, as is happening with silk cotton trees in one area that has not been burnt for three years. So, an unnatural fire is needed to keep the park natural, with its high density of mammals and the now abundant, but once almost extinct one-horned rhino.
What is the baseline for natural in a deciduous forest like Mudumalai or Bandipur? Before humans were in the picture thousands of years ago? Or when the British first came in and declared game reserves and wildlife sanctuaries some 100 odd years ago or when the Wildlife Protection Act came into force in 1972? If the latter baselines are chosen, then fire is a natural part of this ecosystem that has been managed by indigenous forest dwellers for centuries.
The tribals often attribute the huge spread of invasive plants, particularly lantana, to the forest departments policy of suppressing all fires over the last few decades. They also blame the intensity and destructiveness of the fires on this bad management.
Fires keep forests clean
In traditional burning regimes, fires are started very early in the summer (January-February), before the temperatures peak and everything turns completely dry. Only the leaf litter burns, with bushes, tree saplings and adult trees left relatively intact. The forest floor is kept clean, and an early summer rain prompts a flush of new grasses, ensuring food for the animals through summer.
When fires are suppressed year after year, the biomass tends to build up, and when a fire eventually blazes through, it has devastating effects. A Soliga (traditional hunter-gatherer tribe in the Biligiri Rangan Hills) saying goes, A forest needs a fire like a human being needs a haircut. Babu, a Kattunayakan (traditional honey gatherer) near Mudumalai, insists, A fire should burn at least once every three to five years. Animals are not like humans, they can manage a week without much food after a fire. If just one light rain comes, sweet new grass will sprout in 24 hours.
Ecological scientists at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, have detailed documentation on traditional Soliga burning practices, and are convinced it has a net positive effect on the forests. Recent research from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, also shows that tree saplings that get burnt in low-intensity fires can keep their root systems intact, and bounce back to the same height as their unburned counterparts in about two years.
Naveen Kumar, the honorary wildlife warden of Bandipur, despite being very proactive in suppressing the fire, had an interesting observation; While the fire was burning I saw animals like hares, mongoose and deer running all over the place, but once it subsided, I have to admit I didnt see any dead animals. They all seem to have somehow escaped.
We came across one dead langur, but when we went by the area on the second day it had disappeared, probably eaten by a carnivore nothing in a forest goes to waste, really. We watched what seemed like suicidal racket-tailed drongos and other birds flying towards the fire to capitalise on all the fleeing insects otherwise hidden in the woods.
Imperial value system
Considering all this, why are forest fires thought to be bad? Perhaps it stems from another widespread value-based judgement system a good forest is thick with trees while grasslands are wastelands. The roots of this can clearly be traced back to 1864 and the Imperial Forest Service and its management objectives. The primary use of a forest at that time was timber extraction, and the target was maximising tree growth for sustainable harvests. The Forest Departments structure itself was designed with a view of forests being timber factories, and officers were (and still are, to this day) trained mostly in efficiently growing trees.
Every forest working plan (not conservation plan or management plan) had a section on Injuries to which the crop is liable. Fire by the natives who wanted more mammals was a problem for timber production, and was actively stamped out. Ironically, elephants often topped the list of injuries to crop (closely followed by gaur and other herbivores), as they routinely destroyed tree saplings and even adult trees as they inherently tried to open up a forest. The British foresters prescribed keddah operations (large-scale elephant traps) to capture herds of elephants to deal with the problem. When our management objectives changed and we decided we wanted to save these animals rather than eliminate them, sadly the old plans were not thrown out and replaced by new logical ones, they just continued with minor changes.
But I see change coming, and the Bandipur fire is a good example. I was asked to map the fire with a GPS, and I found the Forest Departments attitude fascinating. On the surface of it, everyone was upset about the fire, and genuine efforts were made to find and punish the perpetrator. But the entire area that got razed was dominated by lantana, a plant native to South America, which the British brought over as an ornamental shrub in 1809. It has spread across numerous forests, and now features in the global top 10 invasive plants list. If manually cut, it coppices, producing a number of new shoots that grow up to six times faster than the mother plant. Each plant produces thousands of seeds, which remain viable in the soil for up to 11 years, and sprout at any given opportunity. Animals cant eat it (except possibly, new leaves) since it contains toxins, and all management efforts, such as manual cutting, using elephants/JCBs to uproot it, have failed.
An intense fire was, perhaps, the only way to get rid of the lantana, and staff across ranks in the department seemed to quickly move on from the fire and focus on restoration. Im not sure the laws on forest fires are going to change any time in the near future. We cant, of course, let everyone burn forests as they wish, but we, undoubtedly, need a more nuanced policy on the role of fire in forest management, differentiating between a blazing all-consuming fire and a more controlled, low-intensity, litter fire. Most importantly, there needs to be more democracy in Indias forest decision-making, allowing for all the stakeholder groups opinions to be considered.
The hope is that we incorporate the opinions all the stakeholders beyond one or two elite groups be it elected politicians, forest officers, wildlife enthusiasts, scientists, villagers living alongside parks and last but no least the tribals. We cannot continue with the Imperial forestry legacy when conservation science and thinking has moved so far ahead everywhere else. Tribal forest department staff I interacted with were even outwardly happy with the fire, further suggesting, Now burn it every few years and we will soon have a good forest with plenty of grass and animals.