The burnt area also is one of the highest in two decades in the State
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The number of forest fires recorded in Kerala during 2008-09 was the highest in five years. Official data also indicate that the burnt area was one of the highest in two decades.
The damage was extensive in the grasslands of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve, Attappady and the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Besides the summer heat, one of the major factors that contributed to the fires was the increasing human incursion into forests.
The largest number of fires in recent years had occurred in 2003-04 when 15,581 hectares of forests burnt up in 949 fires.
The official data for 2008-09 list 920 fires which burnt 5,457 hectares.
Though the number of fires came down after the summer rain in April 2009, some fires occurred in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and other places during April-May. Most of the grasslands in the sanctuary had been burnt.
Official figures had never touched the 4,000-hectare mark in the 1990s (the average area burnt was only about 1,600 hectare a year).
Apart from degradation of some of the forest areas, a major development after the turn of the century was the promotion of ecotourism in a big way.
This led to the entry of a large number of people into forest areas. Many of the fires this year were caused by tourists.
This was evident from the fact that the incidence of fires came down in the Muthanga area of Wayanad after entry of tourists was banned. Promotion of ecotourism has probably gone beyond the carrying-capacity of the locations in places such as Thekkady and Muthanga.
As cheap manpower is available for appointment as fire watchmen, it is not an uphill task to check fires in Kerala’s forests.
This year, the responsibility had been placed partly on the eco-development committees. However, that did not help much. In some cases, members of the committees themselves were instrumental in causing fires. A number of fires were never reported.
The official estimates of damage from fires in monetary terms do not show the real value of forests.
The losses from fires in 2008-09 are estimated to be of only Rs.1.58 lakh against Rs.5.55 lakh in the previous year (burnt area: 2,381 hectares).
This is based on loss of assets such as timber. Though the National Forest Commission had stressed the loss of biodiversity as a result of fires, this or the environmental value of forests are not being factored into the calculations.
The forest officials usually claim that no animals have been killed in fires. This claim does not take into account smaller fauna which cannot move away from fires. Hundreds of smaller species are destroyed.
It also affects the water- retention capacity of the soil. Repeated fires in large areas lead to serious degradation of the forests.