By Susmita Mukherjee
7 May 2016
(India Times) – Thank the Gods for the rains; it has helped in putting out one of the worst forest fires we have known in the Himalayas. But do all eyes now turn away from the truth behind such a tragedy? What happens to what remains, charred and vulnerable?
Forest fires are a common occurrence in the Kumaon region. Every summer sees a few fires in the forest. Abhishek Ray, who bought land and turned it into a conservation zone called Sitabani Wildlife Reserve, says there's more than meets the eye in the forest.
"Forest fires are hardly a surprise," Ray says. "In the summer months, the forest officials gather leaves and dried twigs and burn them in a controlled manner in patches. When one patch is burnt, they select and burn another. This is a common practice in Indian forests and the burnt patches prevent any accidental fires from spreading later throughout the forest."
The Britishers also built strategic 'fire line' roads intersecting the forest, which act as a barrier to stop a forest fire from spreading from one region to the next. This has been taking place since the British Raj and are maintained and kept free from tinder by the forest department today.
The rising number of forest fires show that these fire lines have not been strengthened and maintained and controlled burning was not adequately achieved.
"The fires are not just devastating to the plants and trees that fall in its path but also to animals. Most crawling creatures like reptiles, amphibians, as well as insects, butterflies, bird nests and fledglings are among the countless creatures which are burnt alive. The larger animals flee from the smell of smoke but if the fires are as rampant and all encompassing as this year, they get entrapped too. Younger, inexperienced animals like baby elephants, deer and tiger-leopard cubs often bear the brunt." says Ray.
A lot of deer, antelopes, and other ungulates flee the forest into open fields and human habitations, falling prey to poachers and villagers with a taste for wild meat.
The tiger and leopard are considered the guardians of the forest.
When a fire breaks out, they are forced to move further and deeper into the forest leaving the jungle peripheries vulnerable for timber thieves and encroachments. Living, green trees cannot be cut by the law but dead or burnt trees can be sold. So forest fires create a sudden burst in the supply of forest timber ensuring quick profits for many.
"Once the timber is gone and the charred forest land remains devoid of the undergrowths, the villagers create temporary shelters here and begin using it for grazing and slash and burn agriculture. Rampant encroachment follows and thick forest converts to degraded land." he adds. [more]