‘Fire gangs’ employed to create fire-breaks in vulnerable spots

A failed monsoon, deficient seasonal rain, rising temperatures, depleted water sources, desiccated grasslands and dried undergrowth have raised the spectre of uncontrollable fires in tropical evergreen and deciduous forests in the capital district this summer.

District Wildlife Warden D. Ratheesh said the possibility of man-wildlife conflict was also higher this year. Lack of water and lure of ripening jackfruits and plantains could drive elephants and other wildlife, including boars, towards human settlements on forest fringes.

Recently, the department compensated farmers in Peppara after wild elephants ravaged acres of rubber, tapioca and banana plantations. Officials said farmers in other forest fringe areas have also claimed compensation for crops ostensibly destroyed by wild boars. Most of the crop destruction was at night.

Wildlife enforcers have opted for more solar powered electric fences and masonry walls to discourage wild animals from venturing into human habitats. They have advised citizens living near forests to harvest plantains and jack fruits before they ripen.

Poaching threat

Summer also made wildlife venturing into human habitats vulnerable to poaching, electrocution and poisoning. Hence, the department has activated its plainclothes anti-poaching squads in certain areas.

Last month, a forest fire consumed at least two acres of ecologically fragile grasslands at Valipara in Agasthyavanam Biosphere Park. The department responded by pressing “fire gangs,” comprising members of tribal communities, to create fire-breaks in vulnerable areas such as Athirumala, Peppara, Attayar, Pulluvizhinthancholai, Venkalameedu and Anathuruthu.

Forest officials said certain disgruntled elements often set fire to forests to get temporary employment as fire-watchers.

Certain private landowners were also known to misuse the hot season to clear forests and wild growth bordering their plantations by setting them on fire.

The increasing human incursion into forests, partly due to unchecked promotion of eco-tourism, was also cause of forest fires and almost irreversible environmental degradation.

A senior official said the department would limit the number of sightseers to ecological hotspots such as Agasthyarkoodam in Neyyar wildlife sanctuary, where a tiger was sighted last year.

Urban refuse

He said the Agasthyarkoodam trekking season, which would conclude on March 10, saw forest enforcers and guides daily removing considerable amount of urban refuse (mostly plastic bottles, covers, chocolate wrappers, food leftovers, and cigarette lighters) discarded callously on either side of the trekking path.

They said the grasslands in Ponmudi were particularly vulnerable to degradation given the large number of weekend holiday makers who frequent the spot.

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