Forest fires by poachers trapping musk deer in the Himalayas?

Forest fires by poachers trapping musk deer in the Himalayas?

31 Deceember 2016

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India  —    PITHORAGARH: In the months of November and December when high-altitude areas of Dharchula and Munsiyari reel under sub-zero temperatures, forest fires have become unusually common, leading to suspicion that poachers are setting them off to trap endangered animals like musk deer.

Since the first week of November, 2016, residents of Munsiyari and Dharchula have reported witnessing smoke of forest fires more than six times in different parts of the two blocks. Fires were reported from the foothills of Panchachuli and Rajrambha peaks, van panchayat of the seasonal village of Burphu, Chipla Kedar forest of Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary and van panchayat of Pato village in Munsiyari in the last two months.

On December 16, van panchayat forests of the seasonal village of Gunji in Dharchula block also caught fire. “BRO and ITBP personnel were deployed to put it out,” district magistrate of Pithoragarh, Ranjit Sinha, had said then. He also promised to put in place an inquiry into the incident.

Most recently, on December 28, locals of Munsiyari again spotted smoke at the foothills of Panchachuli peak.

Shekhar Kumar Neeraj, who heads TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wide Fund for Nature, told TOI, “Although I am not aware of these winter forest fire incidents in Uttarakhand, this is a definite approach used by poachers to trap and kill musk deer at such high altitudes.”

Vinay Bhargav, DFO of Pithoragarh, denied the occurrence of any fires in the region. “According to National Remote Sensing Centre, there was no indication of forest fires in Pithoragarh. The smoke was due to clouds that are the result of blasting in the hills for road construction to Basantkot in Gori river valley,” he said, adding that previous incidents of forest fire were due to burning of grasses by villagers of Ringu Chinkot.

However, the gram pradhan of Basantkot, Rudra Singh, said he saw smoke rising from the foothills of Panchachuli and Rajrambha peaks a few times. “The smoke was due to fires set by poachers and smugglers who travel that far to hunt animals like musk deer,” he said.

The forest ranger of Munsiyari, Levraj Singh Pangti too said he saw smoke from fires at Munisiyari. “Forest guards were sent to inspect these parts. We also went to Pato and Burphu villages but couldn’t find anyone who might have started the fires.” Pato and Burphu are seasonal villages, and fires broke out only after all the families migrated down to Munsiyari.

Rajendra Kumar, the principal chief conservator of forests of Uttarakhand, said, “Forest officials have already been asked to patrol the region for the next few days to watch out for fires.” Chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand, D V S Khati also said incidents of fire inside Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary are being investigated.

But villagers near Panchachuli said forest officials don’t have the logistics to travel that far and investigate the incidents. “The poachers have weapons and a single forest guard can’t deal with them. The places are very remote and any inspection needs a team of at least 5 men. Who will walk 50 km to catch poachers?” said Munsiyari resident Mahesh Singh.
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