about half of Nagzira wildlife sanctuary in Maharashtra’s Gondia district was destroyed in forest fires allegedly started by tendu leaf contractors in March and April. Conservationists working in the area accused the contractors of working hand-in-glove with forest officials. Most top officials were on leave at the time of the fire, they said.
Estimates by nature conservation group, Gondia Nisarga Mandal, said 50 per cent of the 15,300 hectare (ha) sanctuary was damaged. The non-profit said the tendu leaf contractors set the fire on purpose as they believe the heat generated by the fire causes larger number of tendu seeds (dropped by trees in April) to sprout. The leaves from new seedlings are considered better for making bidis.
But Gondia’s divisional forest officer, M M Kulkarni, said only 800 ha of the park was affected. He said there was no loss of wildlife either. The sanctuary is proposed to be notified as tiger reserve.
Mukund Dhurve, secretary of Gondia Nisarga Mandal said he had tried to inform the forest department about one of the fire incidents on April 8.
“We found both the range forest officer and the assistant conservator of forests missing. When we spoke to the lower level officials, they pleaded helplessness saying they were not empowered to decide and did not have the necessary equipment,” said Dhurve. The fires kept raging for 30 hours before the non-profit managed to contact the divisional forest officer in Gondia town who ordered his staff to douse the fire.
Dhurve said the fires have become an annual event now and the key forest department officials disappear at the same time. Kulkarni denied any nexus.
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