Here is why forest fires now pose a threat to the very survival of Uttarakhand’s unique biodiversity

Forest fire season in Uttarakhand coincides with flowering & breeding months of several vulnerable species, many of them native to Himalayas 

By Sunil Prasad
Published: Friday 28 April 2023
Illustration: Yogendra Anand
Illustration: Yogendra Anand Illustration: Yogendra Anand

Forest fires are becoming more frequent and fierce in Uttarakhand. Such regular burnings can be catastrophic for the state as well as the rich biodiversity it harbours.

Uttarakhand is home to at least 102 species of mammals, 70 reptiles, 19 amphibians, and 124 species of fish. The state also boasts of 600 species of birds.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies 55 of the bird species as “threatened”, of which six are critically endangered and four are endangered.

Several mammalian fauna found in the state are also classified as endangered. The list includes the Asian elephant, tiger, Alpine musk deer, Himalayan musk deer, leopard, snow leopard, blue sheep, Himalayan Thar, leopard cat, Himalayan black bear, sloth bear and pangolin.

With 7,000 species of plants, Uttarakhand contributes 31 per cent of the country’s floral diversity. As many as 119 flowering plants are endemic to the state.

The impact of recurrent forest fires in Uttarakhand is therefore not limited to the direct loss of trees and wildlife, their displacement and subsequent colonisation of unwanted species.

Forest fires can meddle with the life cycle of species and push many of the threatened and endemic species closer to extinction.

For instance, by destroying the leaves and foliage, a forest fire can significantly reduce the photosynthetic activity of surviving trees and thereby affect their growth.

It can also damage the seed bank, both above and below the ground, and wipe out the seedlings and saplings growing on the forest floor. Species that are sparsely distributed and have small or patchy populations suffer the worst impacts as they lose their habitat, territories, shelter and food.

The loss of keystone organisms in forest ecosystems, such as invertebrates, pollinators, and decomposers, can significantly slow the recovery rate of the forest.

Forest fires can also interfere with the reproduction and propagation of certain plants and animals. Such recurrent events can be deadly to the species that are native or endemic to the region.

Consider Taxus baccata L, a conifer native to the Himalayas. The plant, known for anti-cancerous properties, starts flowering from March, when the peak fire season in Uttarakhand typically begins. A massive forest fire during the flowering season can severely impede propagation of the species.

Fruiting in Asparagus adscendens Roxb, a native plant of the Himalayas used for vigour and vitality, also occurs in March. A forest fire can damage its mature fruits and hinder fruiting. Researchers have already recorded scarce germination of the plant because of forest fires.

March and April are also the flowering months for species of Berberis, that are highly valued for curing ailments like eye disorders, abdominal disorders and skin diseases. One of its species, B aristata, whose roots, stem and leaves are used in the treatment of various ailments, is already at risk from overexploitation.

Stephania glabra is another medicinal plant whose tuber is used in the treatment of asthma, tuberculosis, dysentery, hyperglycemia, cancer, fever, intestinal complaints, sleep disturbances and inflammation.

The plant starts to flower in May, when forest fire season in Uttarakhand is at its peak. Exposure to flames can be detrimental to the survival of this sparsely distributed species.

March to May is also the flowering season for Zanthoxylum armatum DC is widely used for curing toothache, pyria and allergy. Though the plant is available across southeast Asia, natural regeneration is poor in the species.

Wildlife also has a specific breeding season and forest fires can influence the integrity of breeding pairs in the long run.

Wildfire v Wildlife
Animals that breed in forest fire season


Breeding season

Degree of threat

Asian elephant


Endangered, Schedule-I*


April- November

Common leopard



Vulnerable, Schedule-I

Sloth bear


Cheer pheasant

April to June

Bristled grassbird

May- September


Great hornbill

January- April

Near threatened, Schedule-I

Laggar falcon

January- May

Himalayan monal




Kalij pheasant


Indian peafowl

April- September

Western tragopan


Vulnerable, Schedule-I

Satyr tragopan


Near Threatened, Schedule-I

*Species protected under Schedule I of Wildlife Protection Act

For instance, sloth bears in India mate in the prime forest fire months of April, May, and June. Any event of forest fire can disturb the sloth bear pair to mate and influence their mating cycle.

Cheer pheasant, kalij pheasant, and Himalayan monal also breed between April and June. These pheasants look after their clutch of eggs and chicks until the next breeding season. Under high-intensity fire, they can lose their clutches and chicks, which are devastating for their survival.

Western tragopans, the most infrequent of all living pheasants, and Satyr tragopans breed between May and June, and need a shrubby floor to hide their clutches of two to three eggs. It can be a difficult situation for these species of high conservation value to sustain themselves under recurrent forest fire in their territories.

While efforts are being undertaken by various agencies to prevent wildfires from occurring or spreading, here are a few steps to not only minimise instances of forest fire but also to protect our biodiversity from such an event.

Collect fuel load in time: Pine needle and dry leaf litter are the common fire materials that occur on the forest floor. These should be cleared by collecting them before January, when the fire season begins in Uttarakhand. The state government is ready to purchase pine needle litter for electricity generation at Rs 300 per quintal (100 kg). Local youth and women can be roped in for this work, which will also help create employment opportunities.

Fix fire line: Creation of fire line is often delayed in Uttarakhand. This pattern needs to be changed and a timely (before February) excavation of the fire line should be ensured. Since the forest department faces a shortage of human resources, local people can engaged in this work.

Install fire watch towers: There is an urgent need for these towers in this hilly state with undulating topography, especially in areas that have a history of a forest fire. They can help monitor forests during the fire season.

Compensatory fodder: People who depend on livestock often ignite fires for better regeneration of grasses. The government can dissuade them from doing so by supplying compensatory fodder.

Ex-situ conservation: The forests of Uttarakhand are home to several high-value and threatened plant species. They can be conserved by growing them outside forest areas such as mass seedling production sites and nurseries. People can also be encouraged to cultivate these plant species in their gardens.

There is also an urgent need to understand management techniques such as promoting habitat-specific research to limit burning especially in biodiversity-rich and water supply areas; for long-term monitoring programmes covering more than two burns; and establish a well-equipped centre for unbiased dissemination of information.

Sunil Prasad is consultant with the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. 

This was first published in the Down To Earth print edition of April 16-30, 2023.

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