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Impact of forest fires

S G Neginhal Nov 7 2017, 1:50 IST
This year's forest fires have created a havoc in the tiger reserves of Karnataka. DH PHOTO

This year's forest fires have created a havoc in the tiger reserves of Karnataka. DH PHOTO

This year's infernos played a havoc in our tiger reserves, especially in Bandipur. Hundreds of hectares of forest area was burnt. Some animals and birds were also caught in the fire. Various reasons have been put forth as to why the fire happened. For instance, some say that the non-removal of the dead and fallen trees is responsible for this.

It is but natural to find some dead, dying or fallen trees in all our forests. In the non-protected areas of forests, these are removed by the Forest Department and transported to depots for sale. Tiger
Reserves also have dead and fallen trees. But the Project Tiger, a tiger conservation programme launched in 1973 by the Government of India, does not allow the removal of standing snags and fallen trees from the reserves.

Bandipur National Park, which is under Project Tiger, is under strict protection for the last 44 years. In these forests, some dead and dying trees are present. Some are damaged by wild fires and some by wild elephants. Added to this the giant Dowga bamboo flowered and died (which has a flowering cycle of 75 years). All the dead trees are lying in situ, without being extracted. Some Forest Department officials feel that these dead trees, their debris and the bamboos were responsible for the recent infernos. So, some say that they need to be extracted periodically. But many wildlife experts are opposed to this. They say that the Forest Department should ensure effective protection.

Usually, fires enter the forest through an external source. The funds allotted for fire protection are to be utilised for fire tracing (a tool which helps in reducing the risk of large fires breaking out) and clearing the wild growth in forest boundaries. In addition, fire watchers are temporarily employed to assist regular staff in protecting the forests. Then why the fires are not effectively controlled? Earlier, forests were protected by clearing forest boundaries and other areas. In the winter months, by taking up early burning, one can ensure that the forest fire does not spread. Additionally, Forest Department staff are trained to protect the forests from accidental fires.

Nowadays, this is not being done in winter, and the staff is not well trained in controlling fires. In fact, many boundaries are now overgrown with weeds and are not cleared properly. These shortfalls could cause fire hazards.

Instead of overcoming the above in-built irregularities, some argue in favour of removing dead and fallen trees, which involves tremendous disturbance to the environment. The disturbances include causing damage to the forests and animals due to reasons such as cutting dead trees, making roads and vehicle movements.

In fact, research indicates that retaining snags and dead trees in forests have various advantages. For instance, dead and living trees with internal pockets of decay or broken tops can serve as wildlife habitats for a variety of plants and animals. Apart from these, fallen branches and trees are also able to enrich the soil by adding organic matter. They also help retain the soil's moisture during dry periods, provide a seed bed for regenerating trees, and provide a site for nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Some also argue that taking up canopy or habitat manipulation in these forests by removing some trees can help in removing the congestion. They feel that by doing so, one can enable sufficient sunlight to reach the forest floor and facilitate the growth of grass. On the contrary, what will happen is that invasive weeds like lantana and eupatorium will be the first occupants of the forest floor, not the grass.

Perhaps, by implementing some of these preventive measures, forest fires can be averted or minimised in the future so as to provide all wildlife a better home.

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