Similipal fire serves as lesson on human activity within protected areas, say experts

With reports citing Mahuli flower collection as the cause of the fire, experts advise caution for those who enter PAs

By Amjad Badshah
Published: Thursday 04 March 2021
A burning Similipal. Photo from the twitter account of Akshita M. Bhanj Deo @TheGreatAshB, a member of the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj

The ongoing fires in Odisha’s Similipal National Park and Tiger Reserve served as a lesson on human activity within protected areas, experts said, with some reports having traced the origin of the fire to local people in the area.

Lala AK Singh, a wildlife expert who has worked in Similipal for 34 years was very clear in his views that the present fire in Similipal was human-made.

The forests of Similipal were of the dry deciduous type and the fallen leaves became highly inflammable if there was no precipitation, he said. “The forests of Similipal usually catch fire 2-3 times between January and April,” Singh added.

Another report by Down To Earth had noted that the fire could have been caused by people who were collecting Mahuli flowers, that are used to make toddy.

The period from January-April also coincides with the Akhand Shikar ritual of many forest-dwelling communities, according to Singh.

“During Akhand Shikar, the Adivasis usually clear the ground bushes and grasses by setting them on fire to enhance their visibility in the forest,” he said.

“Another reason for setting the ground on fire is to help them see animals, especially carnivores such as tigers, to thwart any possible attack on them. This helps them to safely collect minor forest products,” Singh added.

He said there was a need to create awareness among local adivasis about how to ensure there were no human-made forest fires.

“They should be counselled regarding the threat of forest fire as it can affect their economy and kill animals and insects living in the forest,” Singh said.

Surjendu Kumar Dey, an environmentalist, was of the same opinion as Singh. “Adivasis usually enter the buffer zones of protected areas to collect minor forest products. The forest department cannot stop them from doing this. However, adivasis should follow standing operating procedure by not burning firecrackers inside the core area which eventually creates forest fires,” Dey said.

The fire in Similipal is said to have started February 23. The national park and tiger reserve in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha spans over 2,750 square kilometres.

Part of the Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve, it includes three protected areas - Similipal Tiger Reserve, Hadgarh Wildlife Sanctuary spread across 191.06 sq km, and Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary with 272.75 sq km.

Akshita M Bhanj Deo, the princess of the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj, was the first to highlight the situation in Similipal March 1.

After her tweet, the Odisha government sprang to action and took stock of the situation. Bhanjdeo told this reporter that there was a need for an independent inquiry on the fire incident in Similipal.

Moreover, a council for Similipal should be established and one non-profit should look after the daily affairs of the tiger reserve, she added.

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