The onset of summer in Karnataka has spelt disaster for forests across the state, with about 715 square kilometres of green cover reported to have burnt down in fires since February.
Bandipur National Park, home to nearly 120 tigers, is one of the worst affected. Forest minister Ramnath Rai said the park accounted for about 40 hectares of forest land affected by the fire.
The prevailing drought condition, due to deficient rainfall for the third consecutive year in the state, has worsened the situation. “There has been a 65% deficient rainfall in this area,” said T Heeralal, director of the Bandipur National Park.
However, Heeralal pointed out that human intervention led to the fire. “All fire in India, including this one, is man-made.” He said the fire spread because of high humidity, wind speed, the prevailing drought condition, the accompanying accumulation of dried leaves, and human beings.
Sidappa Setty, a researcher with Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, said the contribution of lantana camara, an invasive species of shrub, could also be the cause of fire.
Backing him, Heeralal said, “Because lantana grows to about two metres, if it catches fire, it will convert a ground fire to a canopy fire.”
He said of the 1.02 lakh hectares in the park, lantana had spread to 75,000 hectares. Of this, about 40,000 hectares was so badly affected that even wild animals found it difficult to pass through the shrub, which is inedible.
Besides, shortage of forest staff was another factor. “Bandipur has a sanctioned staff strength of 340 but we have about 230 staff,” Heeralal said.
However, he rubbished claims that this was the reason the spread of the fire could not be controlled.
“An increase in staff numbers would not have helped as the conditions for the spreading of the fire — wind speed, humidity and drought — were present.” More than half of the watering holes within the park have dried up while others have barely been kept operational by pumping groundwater.
The forest minister has ordered a probe by the Crime Investigation Department.