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Above: Forest officials try to douse the raging fire/Photo: twitter.com/hashtag/bandipur

A fire which blazed Bandipur National Park and was allegedly man-made, affected over 4,000 hectares of forest. The matter has been brought to the notice of the Supreme Court

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

In a shocking case of negligence, a fire roared for five days from February 23 in the 87,420-hectare Bandipur National Park in southern Karnataka. This reduced to ashes almost 2,500 hectares which had thriving flora and fauna and was home to more than 200 tigers. A February 25 National Remote Sensing Centre image has estimated that a total of 4,419.54 hectares of the forest was affected.

So huge was its impact that it was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court. An affidavit filed by Cyriac Philip, a Mysuru resident, said: “The core area of Bandipur forest saw a fire starting early morning on February 23 near Kundakere Range, and it spread to Maddur Range and GS Betta Range and approximately about 8,000 acres of four ranges got affected out of the total area of 874 sq km. It is reported that as per the Chief of Forest Force, the fire was man-made.” He was one of the respondents in the Kerala government’s special leave petition filed against a Karnataka High Court order in 2010, imposing a night traffic ban on the national highway passing through this national park. Philip said that there should be no felling of trees on forest, government, revenue or private land without the prior permission of the state government.

While a brief spell of rain curbed the flames, authorities are still grappling with a fool-proof disaster management plan to fight major fires such as this one—the third massive blaze to rock the region in the past few years. Karnataka Forest Minister Satish Jarkiholi, who rushed to the spot, wants to ramp up the infrastructure needed to fight such fires in the future. With high winds, dry conditions and a hilly terrain, the understaffed forest department with limited resources has been hamstrung in fighting such disasters. Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy got IAF choppers to water-bomb the flaming forest. Officials have arrested two shepherds who have admitted to lighting the fire to keep prowling tigers at bay and safeguard their sheep and goats.

The intensity of the blaze forced officials to block traffic inside the park. There is already a ban on night traffic on the national highway passing through the park which was imposed by the Karnataka High Court in 2010 due to increased pressure from environment and wildlife activists and endorsed by the state government. Kerala had appealed to the apex court to lift the ban.

“Efforts have to be taken on a war footing by both the government and civil society to ensure that the forests are protected and preserved,” said Prem Mitra, chairman of green conservation group A Rocha, who was an eyewitness to the Bandipur blaze. “There is a combination of factors for a major fire like this, including human negligence.”

Green activist Suni Kumar told India Legal that such fires are due to human behaviour and increasing temperatures on our planet. Such fires should not be seen as local occurrences but part of a worldwide trend. One of the worrying factors in the Bandipur fire was the abundance of lantana, a highly invasive and resistant weed which is native to South America. Conservation groups have said that this weed is a major cause of fires.

Setting forests on fire is illegal under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Forest officials have booked the shepherds under Sections 27, 29, 30, 31, 50 and 51 of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The two men told officials that they lit the fire to stop tigers from entering their villages. Five years ago—in December 2013— three men were mauled to death by tigers in the same Bandipur-Nagarahole forest range. One of the victims was a 27-year-old forest watcher, T Suresh, who was found dead deep inside the forest with canine marks on his neck. The other two victims were a villager, Cheluva (40) and a tribal, Basvaraj (45). The tiger killed them when it intruded into their hamlets to prey on cattle.

From time to time, forest guards have laid traps in the 120-km corridor between the two contiguous forests for tigers. Some of the reasons for the tigers to enter human settlements are if they are chased out by their rivals or if they are unable to find food in their territories which have either been encroached upon by humans or made desolate by Mother Nature.

Ecologist Dr MB Krishna told India Legal: “With under five percent of the land available as wilderness for wildlife, four square kilometres of the forest and wildlife burnt at Bandipur assumes immense importance. According to a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, some 15 percent of Bandipur is already covered with roads and open grounds.

A fifth of the area is rendered barren now with the fire. This not only has implications for individual species, but for biodiversity.”

Bandipur is home to a variety of wildlife such as tigers, leopards and antelopes. It was once a private hunting reserve for the Mysore maharaja, but was established as a tiger reserve under Project Tiger in 1974. The park is believed to have the highest tiger population for one place. Bandipur, along with adjoining national parks such as the 643-sq-km Nagarahole, 320-sq-km Mudumalai and 344-sq-km Wayanad form a quarter of the 2,183-sq-km Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in the Western Ghats.

A 2018 World Bank report recommends tweaking certain forest management protocols to address future fires—adding more forest personnel, ramping up disaster planning and fixing institutional mechanisms for high-speed response to large fires. Apart from these, the World Bank report recommended time-bound action such as removing dead trees and maintaining basic fire lines so that there is a good gap between vegetation and other combustible material in the forest.

The Bandipur fire is also the result of growing urbanisation that affects forests. Large blazes have created havoc in California, Canada, Spain, Chile, Portugal, Indonesia and even Greece. The US alone lost more than ten million acres in forest fires in 2015. A 2016 Eur­opean Environment Agency report noted that Mediterranean countries are seeing more hot weather extremes and reduced rainfall, resulting in more forest fires. Fires across Europe were up 40 percent on an average, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

This is bad news for our planet.

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