INDIA

Activists fight fire at tiger reserve with sandals and sticks as authorities delay

An environmental activist tries to use a branch with leaves to tamp down the raging forest fire. Source: Nakul M Dev, Facebook
An environmental activist tries to use a branch with leaves to tamp down the raging forest fire. Source: Nakul M Dev, Facebook

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At least 5,000 acres of land (over 20 square kilometres) in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in southern India have been razed by a forest fire that began on February 21. Locals and environmental activists in the region mobilised to try and stop the blaze’s rapid advance, armed with little equipment or protective clothing. Our Observers accuse the authorities of being too slow to act – but also condemn the behaviour of locals, who often start fires deliberately.

Vulnerable animals like elephants, leopards, sambar deer, tigers and Indian rock pythons live inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The fire raged for five days before it was eventually brought under control, and authorities in Karnataka state are still assessing the damage.

This video was taken by a forest ranger in Bandipur Forest. Source: Twitter

The weather was unusually hot for the season and the fire was fanned by dry winds, helping it to spread even more quickly. Some activists said that the local forest department had not done enough to prepare for the possibility of forest fires.

It took until February 25 – five days after the fire began – for the authorities to employ the use of helicopters, dropping water on the wildfire. The Indian Air Force sent two helicopters that released approximately 49,000 litres of water onto the fire from what is known as a "Bambi Bucket" – a tank of water suspended from the helicopter.

Nakul M. Dev, 30, is an environmental activist based in Bangalore. He went down to Bandipur forest over the weekend to try to help put out the fire.

“People were fighting the fire just wearing sandals”

Seeing something like this destroyed in front of our eyes is heartbreaking. The fire teams did as much as they could. But there was not enough support from the government. They sent helicopters to douse the fire far too late, on day five of the fire. If they’d sent more at first, we could have saved a lot [of land]. I think it’s probably the fault of bureaucracy, of deadlines, having to get things approved, and taking too long to recognise the problem in the first place.

The forest department usually hires people from neighbouring villages as "fire watchers" who watch out for fire risks and then sound the alarm if they see a fire. And they go and try to fight the fire. [But] they don’t have the right equipment. Some of them didn’t even have shoes, just sandals. There’s a general lack of manpower. In terms of understanding how to stop a fire, we have an idea, but in terms of equipment we are not well-prepared. Where we were is also a very inaccessible area so fire engines couldn’t get there.

It was a very traumatic experience being there and fighting it. It was horrible to see birds flying around looking for their nests. I even saw a small faun trying to find its way through the fire. It looked like doomsday, or like a scene from a movie. In the end, we had to evacuate quickly. There was smoke everywhere. It was like a nightmare.

"The smoke was blocking the sun"

Our Observer Rahul Aradhya, 24, travelled to the forest from Bangalore with several other activists, including Dev, after receiving a call from Bandipur Tiger Reserve requesting volunteers to help put out the fire. He told FRANCE 24 about the dangerous conditions.

 

We were wearing sunglasses to try to protect our eyes. We just carried whatever we could with us. Most people didn't have face masks, or just used scarves wrapped around their faces for the smoke. We didn't have any equipment. It was very dangerous.

We were using tree branches to try and stop the fire (as can be seen in the video above). It's a very old-fashioned way of doing it. We were trying to stop it from accelerating. We saw a lot of animals running in the wrong direction. There was a lot of smoke blocking the sun, so the light was dim. It was like being in a war zone.

The smoke from the fire blocked out the sun. Source: our Observer Rahul Aradhya

 

The fire spread quickly, fanned by the winds. Source: our Observer Rahul Aradhya

Subhash Malkhede, the assistant principal chief conservator of forests, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that the fire was mostly extinguished on February 26.

He defended the authorities, saying they had created firebreaks in the forest to act as a barrier to stop wildfires spreading further, but the high winds fanned the flames.

He said that not all of the vegetation within the area where the fire raged was completely destroyed, and that larger animals were likely unharmed.

"We haven't found any dead remains of tigers or elephants," he explained. "As the fire grows they sense it. They have enough free space to roam and so they just move on into neighbouring areas. They are safe. They will come back when the fire has been taken care of."

India's ministry of defence tweeted aerial photos and videos of helicopters responding to the forest fire. Source: Twitter

A fire started out of anger at the authorities

There is one thing on which everyone agrees, from forest rangers to activists to the local government: The fire was started deliberately.

Some forest officials have surmised that perhaps a resident of one of the villages on the fringes of the natural park started the fire as an act of retaliation for not being hired as a "fire watcher".

A photo from an activist showing the fire raging in the tiger reserve. Source: Rakshith Kumar, Facebook

 

The aftermath of the fire. Source: Rakshith Kumar, Facebook

Rahul Aradhya believes that the fire may have been started by a local who was angry at forest officials for not doing enough to prevent tiger and elephant attacks in the area.

A weed called lantana camara – brought to India by British colonialists more than two centuries ago – suffocates other native vegetation like bamboo, which provides food for animals. As lantana has spread, animals move out of the forest to forage near human settlements, thus increasing the risk of attacks. The local population blames the forest department for not dealing properly with the lantana invasion.

Moreover, because lantana is a large plant it considerably worsens forest fires by transforming ground fires into canopy fires, exacerbating the damage.

Aradhya said the activists' efforts to tackle the blaze were actually thwarted by locals.

“You don’t know who to trust”

It was dangerous to work with locals. At one point we were walking towards the fire to try and put it out, and there were some locals who came to join us and help us. Then when we turned around, we realised that they were actually lighting it again behind our backs. You don’t know who to trust. These people cause so much damage, but the forest department can’t do anything; it doesn’t have the power to file a case against somebody, they can only hand it to the police department and nothing is done.

This story was written by Catherine Bennett.