Soligas of BR Hills say litter fire is the only way to salvage the sanctuary
Let the wind chase fire
About two years ago, a fire broke out in the Biligiri Rangaswami Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. The police arrested 35 community leaders of Soliga tribe for causing the fire. Five people still have cases against them. Yet the forest community recently submitted a bold proposal to the Centre advocating benefits of their century-old practice of annual litter fire, or theregubinki, for managing the forest and thereby conserving the wildlife.
The proposal was sent to the Union ministry of environment and forests just weeks before the government declared the sanctuary a tiger reserve early this year. About 20,000 Soligas, whose lives for generations have been inextricably linked to the BR Hills, find their future insecure. Their traditional homesteads are in the core area of the sanctuary. But community leaders warn neither the forest nor tigers can be saved if they are driven out. The health of the forest has deteriorated with growing infestation of hemiparasites and weeds like lantana, since the government banned theregubinki in 1976, says Karnakede Gowda, a community elder. Animals are fleeing in absence of food. Herd sizes of most animals have shrunk despite curbs on poaching, he adds.
The petition pleads for a conservation plan that includes modern as well as traditional practices like theregubinki.
It’s an intricate process
Soliga in Kannada means children of bamboo. The very name suggests their harmonious existence with nature and traditional knowledge to manage the forest ecology—be it collecting forest produces in a sustainable manner or setting fire to the forest floor once a year.
Theregubinki, Soliga elders describe, is not a random practice. It is an intricate process performed in harmony with factors like soil moisture, wind speed and stages of vegetation growth. “In our forests the rains continue till January,” says Acchuge Gowda, former president of Taluka Soliga Ahivruddhi Sangha (TSAS), under which the Soligas are united. “We start the fire in February when the tall and dense strands of the elephant grass dry out but the roots are still green, and there is a lot of moisture in the soil.” This grass fire never reaches a height of more than a metre.
It stays at one place for not more than five minutes because hullumuriagaali—the grass breaking wind, also known as nagaragaali or the snake wind due to its speed—constantly chases it away, spreading it to other areas. The fire burns only the grass culm, litter and weeds like young lantanas. But the soil, rhizomes and even the ground-dwelling fauna do not get burned, says Acchuge.
Once the grass and leaf litter of the old year is burnt, the stage is set for bittenegaali—the seed spreading wind—that starts in March and goes on till the end of May, blowing mature seeds over distances of up to three kilometres. Since no weeds are left to hinder them, the seeds settle on the ground and germinate well, renewing the forest wealth.
The truth of these insights is corroborated by ecologists and forest officials. Ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who has studied the management of bamboo in the state through a similar fire practice, says Soligas’ wisdom is logical and studies are needed to understand how their practice has maintained biodiversity of the region. M H Swaminath, additional principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) of Karnataka, says the vegetation in the BR Hills is hardy. The fires thus facilitate grass growth in the forest. “For the past 10 years we have been rigidly curbing litter fire in the forest, but now we need to have a relook.”
‘Only way to check weeds, pests’
The entire sanctuary now seems to be choked by lantana explosion. “The weed has edged out native grasses. We used to have 12 to 14 varieties in the forest. Both livestock and wild animals depended on them for food. Some were even used for medicinal purposes,” says Dasai Gowda, priest of Butani Podu village. Handibalehullu (wild boar grass), for instance, is one such grass consumed by women for easy delivery and postnatal recovery. It is also a favourite of elephants. The grass is now rare. With reduction in grass and proliferation of the woody weed that makes impenetrable thorny thickets, animals are not getting enough food and space. “If you follow any road in the hills in the morning,” says Kadanamade Gowda, president of TSAS, “you will find elephant dung all along. Unable to walk through lantana, they follow roads these days.”
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