Amrutha G | Feb 27, 2019 | 5 min read
Six days and more than 30,000 litres of water later, the wildfire in Karnataka’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve is still not completely out; activists on the ground, however, say its spread has been curtailed, while calling it the worst forest fire in the state’s history.
Thousands of acres of forestland and numerous trees have been destroyed in the blaze, and there are reports of several animals having perished as well. A top state forest official said it has been confirmed that this is an “act of sabotage”.
What’s the ground situation?
The Bandipur range, which is spread over 874 square kilometres, has the highest tiger population in India. Almost 500 guards along with officials, firemen, eco-volunteers and people from the area have been working non-stop to douse the flames with hand pumps; on Monday, IAF (Indian Air Force) helicopters were roped in to pour water on the affected areas.
Forest officials claimed that they haven’t come across carcasses of any big animals so far but have spotted dead reptiles. They added that the pictures of burnt carcasses being shared on social media don’t belong to the Bandipur incident. Activists said they spotted deer, elephants, and sambhar fleeing from the smoke.
Since last Thursday, movement of people and vehicles has been banned on NH-67, which connects Mysore and Ooty, and inter-state roads until further notice. And since Friday, forest officials have stopped issuing permits for safaris and have even banned tourist vehicles from entering the forest area.
Wildlife warden of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary P Dhanesh Kumar said, “The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is near Bandipur and, hence, has put all its 168 forest guards on high alert. A few of them have joined the firefighting operation at Bandipur.”
Who started the fire?
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Punati Sridhar said, “We had contained the fire on Sunday, but on Monday, it suddenly sprang up and spread to a few other places. Hence, we requested IAF’s help. We don’t know how or why it re-started, but we are working round the clock to check the spread. Officials say that their surveys show the fire could have started on its own in some of the affected areas. However, we have reason to suspect a few people and have booked them for violating forest laws.
“We believe a man and his friend did this for revenge; their suspected motive was to have the range forest officer and other senior officials transferred or suspended when things got out of hand and the fire caused more damage. We have information on who is responsible and will investigate thoroughly.”
Range Forest Officer Gangadhar along with two forest guards, identified as Manu and Manju, who belong to the local tribal community, have sustained injuries and are being treated at a private hospital in Mysuru.
Forest officials said none of the nearby residential settlements have been affected, and that people just need to be careful of the mounds of ash and wear protective garments and footwear while venturing out.
What kept it blazing for so long?
A wildlife activist and conservationist, Joseph Hoover, who has been helping forest officials since Day 1, said, “The forest department of Bandipur did not hire fire watchers or trim bushes in the affected areas; in short, it fell woefully short in terms of adequately preparing for the ‘fire season’.”
Based on previous incidents, the start and peak of summer, Hoover explained, has been designated as fire season — the period from February end right up till June is most vulnerable to forest fires.
“Though hundreds of volunteers were present, we were helpless due to the massive size and spread of the blaze. During fire season, the department needs to take the required precautions — every year in December or the following January, forest department officials hold a meeting with wildlife wardens, officials, and locals to discuss the measures that need to be taken for the upcoming fire season and start preparations accordingly; this year, the meeting wasn’t held. Had it been done, this tragedy could have been avoided. Also, the government’s involvement is negligible. All departments concerned need to pull up their socks if we are to protect our forests,” he added.
Another wildlife activist, Nakul M Dev, who too has been volunteering and helping forest officials to combat the blaze, echoed Hoover. “It started on Thursday and we all rushed to Bandipur, as the forest department is short on manpower. Bandipur is a dry forest, so even a small spark can snowball into a raging blaze and spread fast. That said, all forest fires in India are man-made disasters, including this one. We believe people who were not given access to the forest are behind this — no traffic is allowed in at night in a bid to curb illegal activities and not disturb the animals; we suspect some people who were barred from entering did this on purpose,” he said.
“Nearly 10,000 to 15,000 acres of forestland has been destroyed so far; it was a struggle to contain it due to the lack of support from the state government. Wildlife also has been affected — small animals and reptiles can’t run fast and have perished; however, tigers, elephants, and other large animals, who know the forest better, fled on seeing the smoke. But, now, this may result in some man-animal conflict if the animals have taken refuge in nearby villages.”
What the government says
Deputy Chief Minister Dr G Parameshwara said, “The forest fire in Bandipur is very saddening; more than 70% of the forest has been gutted. The forest department is working hard to mitigate the damage. Whoever is responsible for this will be dealt with in the strictest manner possible.”
Forest minister Satish Jarkiholi visited the affected areas along with forest officials to take stock of the destruction. He also held a meeting with Sridhar and other officials.
Data provided by the state fire department has revealed a steady rise in forest fires since 2015 — from 589 in 2015 to 913 in 2016, further up to 925 in 2017 and then 985 in 2018.
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