Chaotic-Conservation: Humans in Tiger Country and Forest Fires
Last couple of years I have been crossing Bandipur Tiger Reserve during March –May and observed that it’s completely dry with big trees standing without any leaves at all. By looking at them no one can tell that they will bloom again after the rains. Ground is full of dry leaves and bamboo shoots just waiting for a carelessly thrown cigarette butt. There had been no major fires in the national park till now. 1 Director, Bandipur Tiger Reserve stepped up vigil by recruiting 350 forest watchers on a temporary basis in addition to regular staff till April 15. Their job was to look out for fires and alert the staff. But they didn’t have to wait till April as the first major fire in the Bandipur national park and adjoining Nagarahole Park broke out mid-March having devastating effect on the flora and fauna. According to forest officials, thousands of acres of forests have been burnt. Both Bandipur and Nagarahole have the highest number of tigers and elephants in the country. This is what I call Chaotic-Conservation. A well meaning effort at conservation but without being methodical and planned all goes to waste. If a process is wrong at the start it can never give a correct result..as they say in Philosophy.
We travelled to Bandipur few days after the fire was put out and saw the devastation first hand. Going to a resort inside the forest we saw couple of villages having electricity, satellite connection etc. inside the forest. Similarly the resorts had all pleasures of technological advances. Though not in the definition of protected natural parks and no reason for villages/estates/resorts to exist inside a preserved forest when they are not so big that separate area outside cannot be allotted for them. We joked that tiger population must be going down as we saw freely roaming cattle and goats. After the fire herbivores like deer moved outside in search of grass and were freely moving in the villages. These villagers told us that they saw deer and peacocks burning alive in the fire. A sad day for real wildlife lovers. Electrical wires and poles providing electricity for these human settlements were all along the edge of forest. With so many dry leaves it needs a little spark. Had there been no civilization inside, one of the reasons of fire could be chalked out. Humans and fires go together. Other than humans inside the forest, even threat is the highway through the forest. Bangalore Ooty highway pass through the Bandipur forest region in Karnataka and then Mudumalai forests in Tamilnadu. Touristic vehicles as well as heavy trucks pass through it. Though the road is maintained with signs of slow driving, not stopping or feeding animals and not littering, people hardly follow them. We saw plastic bottles and even diapers on roadsides though forest officials were picking them up in some places. People regularly stop and take photographs as road is not patrolled. One can carelessly throw a cigarette and move on leaving an inferno behind during summer.
A funny incidence happened on our way back from a safari the next day. Couple of cars out on a picnic had stopped and were feeding deer, bread. The forest official with us requested them not to feed the deer as they come onto road and can get killed by a fast moving vehicles. These cars moved away but after a kilometre we saw them again doing the same thing. They were scolded again but the third time the forest official got down and gave them a piece of his mind and then shooed away all deer standing in the middle of the road. Had rules been stricter and officials had power to fine them this would not have happened. Anything which involves money especially fine works .Unfortunately the forest official could only scold them. People like these pass through the forest every hour every day. If this happened in broad daylight what could happen in the night. Other than mortality in forest fires animals are regularly killed by speeding vehicles or consuming plastic and other poisonous food. In November 2013, a passenger train in West Bengal collided with a herd of 40 to 50 elephants, killing five adults and two calves. Nocturnal species such as the civet, mouse deer, leopards and various reptiles are regular victims of speeding vehicles.
Thankfully through persistent efforts of forest officials governing bodies have closed the way for night traffic by providing an alternative road that bypasses Bandipur, only 35 kilometres (20 miles) longer than the highways inside the protected area. Not a green solution if we consider the fuel used but better than spoiling this pristine peace of nature. Other option is strict regulations and their implementation. In 2012 Supreme Court had banned safaris inside the forest but later lifted the ban. Though I don’t like poking my nose inside the little that is left for tigers, our country need the revenue generated by tiger tourism. As night-time closure is challenged in Supreme Court by businesses which have to transport via forest , a strict set of rules and regulations is the only option left. Educating common people of the financial benefits of having such parks should be every conservationists goal as they don’t understand the eco language.
This is the present scenario but future seems to be grimmer. Growing human population and increased affluence among a section of the society has increased the demand for human use of wild areas. Though its mandatory by The National Wildlife Action Plan under the chairmanship of Prime Minister of India, to bypass all sensitive and protected regions for new surface transport projects, still state governments keep on demanding use of these regions for new projects. The new railway line demanded by the state of Kerala, plans to bisect 32 kilometres (20 miles) through two protected areas (Bandipur and Wayanad). Also night-time use of these areas will encourage illegal activities such as poaching and timber smuggling. Alternatives are also available bypassing wildlife rich regions which will neither effect country’s economic growth nor damage the wildlife. We need to look for them.
Government and several private organizations are working towards conservation of our unique and diverse bio heritage. Should we sit and watch or help them in their efforts by following the rules and encourage others to do so. Travel green and try not to damage the region. It is up to us to change our mind set and let the four percent of country’s landscape remain as natural as possible. Think about it …are we only a camera conservationist or a real wildlife lover.