Wildlife experts say the government needs to have livelihood plans for those surviving on just mahua.


New Delhi: India’s largest biosphere reserve, Similipal Forest Reserve, is in danger. The biosphere reserve in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha has been engulfed in flames for more than 10 days. On Tuesday, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar took cognizance of reports of the forest fire that has been raging for the past 10 days in Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha’s Mayubhanj district. In a tweet, he stated that he had ordered officials to take immediate action and report to him. Meanwhile, the state government has claimed that the situation is under control.

Anish Andheria, President, Wildlife Conservation Trust, India told The Sunday Guardian: “The fire situation is under control now. Out of 21, eight ranges got burnt and it’s a big area. It’s massive damage as the fire has gone on for more than 10 days. Since it’s a mountainous region, so it’s more dangerous as it spreads faster. The cause is always man-made. It’s done by people who collect mahua as they burn the undergrowths since after burning, it gets easier for them to pick the mahua. It happens every year and it’s an unfortunate thing. Sometimes, the fire gets out of control like it happened this time. The firefighting can only happen at night.”

According to reports, the state’s forest department has been unable to get the fire under control. The fire has been increasing in magnitude and has spread across eight areas of the 20 ranges of the tiger reserve which is the country’s largest biosphere reserve. Several officials have also alleged that the locals could have set the fire to poach wild animals.

“Every year, the forest is burning. In all the ranges of Similipal, there is a fire in someplace or the other but as they are small fires and it gets controlled. This time, it’s a hot period of the year and also it has not rained. Normally, there is a little bit of rain every week in the Similipal region. For the last week, there was no rain. Due to climate change and rise in temperature, most fires are far more intense. It’s difficult to control so the only solution is ensuring that fire doesn’t happen. The best way is to work with communities and find an alternative to their livelihood. If they are going to survive on mahua, then these things will happen. The government needs to have some livelihood programmes. The fire is just a symptom, the cause is the poverty that the people are dealing with,” Andheria said.

He also said that thousands of families have moved out of the jungle in states like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. “The Odisha government is not doing anything like this. People have moved out of Satpura Tiger Reserve and other reserves and the government has given them good packages and land. The Forest Department needs to be more active and the government, in general, will have to look at the bigger picture,” he added.

Meanwhile, officials have formed a squad for each of the 21 ranges across five divisions—North and South STR (Wildlife) besides Baripada, Rairangpur, and Karanjia (Territorial) —to carry out the fire fighting operations. Last week, five persons suffered serious burn injuries on Jualikata-Talpada road under Thakurmunda police limits.

As per reports, the fire broke out near Jualikata-Talpada road and the heavy wind blowing in the area added to the woes of the forest department as it spread the flames further. Four of the injured persons were identified as Samita Naik, Sumati Maharana, Pindu Maharana, and Mamtaz Ali. The injured persons were rescued and admitted to the Thakurmunda Community Health Centre (CHC) for treatment, as per authorities.

Despite several efforts to minimize the loss from the fires, it spread further into the Similipal forest. The forest, spread in an area of 2,750 sq km, also has a sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to 304 species of birds, 62 species of reptiles, 37 species of fish, and 55 species of animals. Moreover, around 52 fauna species are endangered. Paradoxus jorandensis is an example of a valuable and endemic fauna species within the area. In addition, Panthera tigris tigris (Royal Bengal Tiger) and Elephas maximus (Asiatic Elephant) have both been observed within the Similipal Biosphere Reserve.

To ensure the safety of the forest, Similipal was divided into two parts. Two deputy directors were posted in the forest range offices. The officials, however, could not prevent the fire from spreading in the sanctuary. Many forests in the Karanjia forest division were also affected by the fires. The affected forests were- Thakurmunda, Kendumundi, Naona, Gudagudia, Bareipani, Dudhiani, and Satkosia, as per reports.

It is noteworthy that Akshita M. Bhanj Deo, the princess of the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj, was one of the first to highlight the situation in Similipal on 1 March. Asia’s second-largest biosphere reserve, Similipal, is a national park and tiger reserve covering an area of 2,750 sq km. It’s known for its tiger and elephant population. UNESCO had added the national park to its list of Biosphere Reserves back in 2009.