Odisha govt deploys 1000 men to contain huge blaze in Similipal National Park
- Similipal, among the few included by the UNESCO in its list of critical biosphere reserves of the world, covers an area of 5569 sq km and contributes 38% of the total protected area network in Odisha. It is also one of the oldest tiger reserves in the country.
The Odisha government on Wednesday engaged a team of over 1,000 people, including 750 forest guards and deployed 40 vehicles including fire tenders and 240 blowers to the Similipal biosphere reserve in Mayurbhanj district as a massive fire in 8 of the forest ranges raging for more than 10 days threatened to engulf the wildlife species and medicinal plants there.
Odisha forest and environment minister Bikram Arukha said he has instructed the principal chief conservator of forests to ascertain the cause of the fire and bring it under control quickly. “Similipal is the pride of our state. Action is being taken by involving local people to protect our forest,” he said and asked the PCCF to submit a report to the state government by Thursday.
The fire in Similipal biosphere came as Odisha topped the list of forest fire incidents with 6627 fire spots since February 24 as per the Forest Survey of India’s fire alerts system based on SNPP (Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and observations from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Telangana came a distant second with 1769 fires in the same time. Odisha also saw 8991 number of forests fires since November 1 last year, the highest among all the states.
Similipal, among the few included by the UNESCO in its list of critical biosphere reserves of the world, covers an area of 5569 sq km and contributes 38% of the total protected area network in Odisha. It is the sixth largest biosphere reserve, one of the oldest tiger reserves in the country and a major biodiversity hotspot in Eastern India. The biosphere has the largest zone of Sal trees in the entire country. Its distinctive biodiversity contains 1,076 species of plants including 93 species of orchids, 300 species of medicinal plants and 52 species of endangered flora. It has also 42 species of mammals, 264 bird species, 39 reptile species and 12 amphibian species.
The fire in Similipal which started in the Kaptipada range of the biosphere reserve in Mayurbhanj on February 9, soon spread to ranges like Upper Barahkamuda, Jenabil, Nawna South, Nawna North, Pithabata, Bhanjabasa and Thakurmunda range, alleged environmental activists working at the reserve.
Vanoomitra Acharya, a conservationist working at Similipal said though tribals set fire to the dried leaves on the forest floor ahead of collecting the Mahua flowers, this year the poachers are behind the endless spate of fires. “Poachers are on a rampage inside the tiger reserve and they are setting fire to the bushes and the dried leaves so as to scare the animals like wild boars and barking deer to run in the opposite direction. They then shoot the animals with bows and arrows or pellet guns. While poachers were running amok, the forest officials did not do any patrolling. Forest fire incidences could have been reduced drastically with future planning and using modern technologies, but nothing of that sort was done in Similipal,” alleged Acharya, adding that the fire destroyed hundreds of bushes, medicinal plants and orchids for which the biosphere is famous.
Regional chief conservator of forest of Baripada, M Yogajayananda, however said the fire may have been triggered by someone's negligence. “For more than a week, Baripada and the area nearby is experiencing temperatures of 40 degree Celsius. Unlike last year, this year there has been no rain in winter season leading to dry weather in the lower atmosphere which helped spread the fire quickly. The thick blanket of leaves on the forest floor has helped the fire to spread. But the core area of the tiger reserve has not been affected. It's only the villages in the fringe area that have been hit, but we are trying hard to bring the fire under control,” said Yogajayananda.
Though the fire has been raging for more than 10 days, it did not come to public notice till erstwhile princess of Mayurbhanj royal family Akshita Bhanj Deo wrote about it on social media following which Union minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan expressed his concern and requested Union forest and environment minister Prakash Javadekar and chief minister Naveen Patnaik to take action. Javadekar later tweeted that he has asked his officials to take immediate action and report to him.
Bhanj Deo said it was a matter of concern that no one took the forest fire seriously and the chief minister was tweeting about world wildlife day. “It's ironic that he was tweeting about wildlife day when Similipal was burning. Mayurbhanj is completely dependent on Similipal due to the forest and the rivers that emanate from hills in the region. The fire and the resultant smoke has been affecting not just the wild animals, but people living on the fringes. A few days ago, an auto-rickshaw carrying passengers collided with a truck as the drivers could not see each other due to the smoke. As the fire rages on, I am not sure how many wild animals have perished and what medicinal plants have been lost. I am worried whether we have lost the melanistic tiger and elephants to the fire. Army should have been requisitioned to contain the fire and the conservationists from Bhubaneswar could have been consulted on ways to protect the wildlife. Despite what officials say there has been very little action on the ground,” Bhanj Deo said.
The CMO which undertook a review of the situation this evening said the forest fire is under control. “No loss of life or major damage to big trees has been reported. PCCF (Wildlife) has made spot visits to take stock of the situation. SOP has been issued to deal with the situation,” the CMO said.