Explained: Why are fires frequent at the Bandipur reserve?

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Mains Paper 3: Environment | Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Mains level: Prevention of forest fires


Context

  • A five-day fire that raged through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve has reportedly burnt more than 15,400 acres of forests.
  • Between February 21 and 25, the reserve saw 127 fire counts in various ranges of the 912 sq km forest.
  • While K’taka Forest Department scrambled to put out the blaze, an Indian Air Force helicopter sprayed over 19,000 litres of water in seven sorties.

Why it matters?

  • While fires are not uncommon at Bandipur, what has surprised officials is their intensity and frequency.
  • The worry now is the long-term damage to the ecosystem, which is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere that hosts the world’s largest tiger population, at more than 575 (2014 census).
  • Over 400 fire watchers were placed, but questions have arisen whether the precautions were enough, especially since Bandipur has had frequent fires.

How susceptible is it to fires?

  • Bandipur is a dry deciduous forest in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats, and is no stranger to fires. Periods of drought invariably lead to fires.
  • A study has shown that between 1974 and 2014, 67% of the Nilgiri Biosphere had seen some form of forest fire, with Bandipur having reported the most incidents.
  • The 2018 monsoon was particularly strong, but the year-end northeast monsoon has failed.
  • If the monsoon led to dense growth, the blistering heat since September has turned vegetation brittle and dry, with vast swathes becoming tinderboxes.
  • As with most forest fires, it is assumed that Bandipur’s ignition was man-made as miscreants set fire in multiple locations.
  • Compounding matters is the ubiquity of lantana camara, an invasive weed species native to South America, that has spread through nearly two-thirds of the forest area.

What is the impact?

  • India’s forest policy encourages a zero forest fire approach for its protected landscapes — whether it is Bandipur or the rainforests of the upper Western Ghats.
  • Scientific literature has shown this blanket approach may be doing harm to dry, deciduous forests where trees have evolved to co-exist with fire.
  • The trees in this landscape were closer to those in a savanna than in rainforests 100 km away. Trees have dramatically thicker barks, implying that they had evolved to be fire-resistant.
  • When fires are relatively frequent, adult tree mortality in these systems is very low.
  • Many saplings sprout shortly after the fire from underground reserves, and the system returns to its original state in a few years.
  • Conversely, when fires are suppressed — including by curbing the tribal practices of controlled fire burning — a greater biomass builds up that can lead to high intensity fires which affect the ecosystem negatively.
Forest Fires
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