KERALA

Forest fires wreak havoc in wildlife sanctuary

KOZHIKODE, FEB. 26. Forest fires have been playing havoc in the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary for the past one week, sparking protests from eco-groups against the Government's inability to take effective fire-fighting measures. Large tracts of forest land have been devastated by the fire in the biodiversity rich region. The extent of damage to flora and fauna is yet to be assessed.

While the Wayanad wildlife warden, Phanindra Kumar Rao, chose to play down the threat from fires, eco-groups such as the Prakrithi Samrakshana Samiti believed that the threat from fire in Wayanad this year is the worst in the past 25 years. The warden said the fires were a more serious threat across the border in the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

It is said that there is an appreciable decline in availability of funds for fire-fighting measures, mainly because the World Bank project under which funds were made available for the purpose ended on December 31 last year.

An equally serious factor is the lack of rainfall. There has been very little rain in Wayanad for the last two months. In the same period last year, intermittent rain had helped keep the forest fires in check.

Because of the shortage of funds, the eco-development committees, which were engaged by the Forest Department to spot and put down and take fire prevention measures even last year, had not been set up this year. Eco-development committees were made up of tribals and other local people.

Forest Department personnel believe that the local people have added to their problems by deliberately starting fires to destroy undergrowth so that fresh grass and other forms of vegetation would sprout to provide fodder for their grazing milch animals. Speaking to The Hindu , Mr. Rao said the 89 families that were settled inside the forests were a threat to the safety of the forests. This was because even a lighted matchstick carelessly thrown away was capable of starting a huge fire in the forest strewn with dry leaves and dried up trees.

Fires have been reported from the Muthanga, Tholpetti, Bathery, and Kurichiad ranges of the sanctuary.

The Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti spokesman, Badusha said Samiti activists spotted a large number of singed snakes and small animals that got roasted in the fires.

Even in the usually lush green Brahmagiri, Kamba and Banasura mountain ranges in Mananthavadi taluk, where the famous Tirunelli temple is situated, fires are seen these days.

Nature lovers have reported that a number of springs in mountains that fill tributaries of the Kabini river with water have gone dry in the severe drought that has gripped Wayanad. The fires would aggravate the severity of drought conditions.

Firelines usually are laid in December and January before the commencement of the fire season. It had been laid in only about 24 km, which is far short of the requirements needed to check and prevent fires. Even by rough estimates prepared by forest department, about 290 hectares of forest land had been affected by the fires that broke out in the last few days in the 34,400 hectare Wayanad wildlife sanctuary.

Eco groups believe it is a gross understatement of the gravity of the situation. Appeals have been sent to the Chief Minister, the Forest Minister, the Chief Conservator of Forests and the Union Ministry for quick action to douse the fire and to tone up the forest department's fire-fighting machinery.