The destruction of large tracts of the Nilgiri bioreserve in a recent blaze reiterates that more needs to be done to prevent forest fires.

The destruction wreaked by a massive forest fire at Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka is the worst in recent years, and is a major setback to conservation efforts in this prime tiger and elephant reserve.

The 643 sq km national park is contiguous to Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and is part of the famed Nilgiri Biosphere reserve.

The fire, which was first noticed last Sunday, blazed through the core area and reduced vast swathes of jungle to cinders. The official figures of 600 hectares of forests being lost to fire, is disputed by wildlife activists, but the park managers agree that devastation in the core area comprising Marapannakatte (Marappanakere) in Compartment 4 of Nagarahole is total.

After it was first noticed on February 26, the fire raged for four days. It was put out after considerable effort by tribals in the area and forest guards but not before widespread destruction to the ground vegetation, innumerable insects, nesting birds and rare species like the Malabar giant squirrel.

Contrary to popular belief, most forest fires do not occur spontaneously. They are unwittingly or otherwise triggered by humans. While these fires are an annual occurrence in national parks, what is significant about the recent fire is its duration and intensity: it raged for almost a week in the core area of Nagarhole which, due to its moist grasslands, was untouched for 45 years. This was the favourite browsing place for herbivore animals like deer, sambhars, gaurs, etc., that constitute the prey base for carnivores such as tigers, leopards and dholes, Indian wild dogs.

Nagarahole has one of the highest prey densities in the country, a fact established by independent scientific studies and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). “Given the prey density, the tiger population increased over the years and the entire Bandipur-Nagarahole-Mudumalai-Wayanad complex supports an estimated population of 350 to 400 tigers,” Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, Bangalore, told The Hindu. “It is also home to about 7,500 elephants making it one of the prime elephant and tiger landscapes in the world and the best hope for their long term conservation.”

“With such a valuable meta population of two charismatic but highly endangered species, this landscape with four major reserves and connecting forests deserves to be protected far more intensively from the known threat of forest fires,” he added.

A GPS-based survey has shown that 509 hectares of core area of Nagarahole has been devastated in the fire apart from affecting Metikuppe and the Anechowkur range, Kalalla, D.B. Kuppe and Veeranahosahalli.

In the adjoining Bandipur National Park, the fire burnt through A.M. Gudi, Kalkere, Gundre, Moolehole and reached Muthanga in Wayanad in Kerala. Moolapura near the Kaniyanapura elephant corridor of Bandipur and areas near Nayihalla in Gundre, the link between Bandipur and Nagarahole for elephant movement, too were affected by the fire and will take years to recover.

The long term loss to wildlife and conservation efforts which stems from habitat degradation is immense, according to Sanjay Gubbi, member, State Wildlife Board. “If the ground fire destroys the vegetation, the forage for herbivore is destroyed, unedible weeds like Lantana and Epatorium take over the forests and the population of prey animals dwindles, which impact the carnivore population. In addition, smaller mammals, ground-nesting birds, insects, slow moving reptiles and other wildlife species are destroyed and valuable leaf litter accumulated on forest floor that acts as natural manure for trees and plants are burnt, leading to fodder shortage in forests”.

Although Nagarahole, like Bandipur, Mudumalai and Wayanad, is prone to forest fires, the intensity of the recent fire was made worse by the failure of showers in December-January. The national park was like a tinderbox that burst into flames at the first spark. The forest department should have been on a state of high alert with fire spotters posted to detect forest fires.

Controlled burning of fire lines during winter is critical to fighting forest fires and should have been completed by mid-January, when there is moisture in the vegetation. But NGOs say this was not done this year and was one of the reasons for the fire.

K.M. Chinnappa, president, Wildlife First, said the forest department was “apathetic” about carrying out such preventive measures even though there was no dearth of funds.

Mr. Bhargav pointed out that prevention of fires, vital for forest and wildlife conservation, is best achieved by reaching out to local communities and hiring sufficient number of people as fire watchers.

Aside from clearing fire lines, actual deployment of fire watchers with forest staff at strategic locations at watch towers, constituting response teams to put out fires are at the core of a preventive strategy.

Not only is dousing forest fires extremely difficult but it takes a very long time for the habitat destroyed by them to recover.

B.J. Hosmath, Field Director, Project Tiger, said a lesson should be learnt from the fire to ensure that such damage does not recur. The main lesson is that forest fires are best prevented because it is difficult to control them. Nagarhole had major fires in 1999 and again in 2004 but the 2012 fire shows that this lesson has not been learnt.

rkk@thehindu.co.in

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