India's largest biosphere, Simlipal National Park in Odisha's Mayurbhanj district, frequently witnesses forest fires during dry weather conditions, every year. The fires which generally go unnoticed due to a lack of media coverage, made the headlines this time around when the Princess of Mayurbhanj, Akshita M Bhanj Deo, took to microblogging platform Twitter and made an appeal to raise the issue.
The appeal garnered support from every corner of the country with environmentalists, activists coming up for the cause. This brought the wildfire to the notice of the Government as well.
On March 2, 2021, Union Minister of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar took cognisance of reports of the forest fire and tweeted that he had ordered officials to take immediate action and report to him.
Further, on March 5, 2021, Prakash Javdekar giving information on the forest fire tweeted, "The fire at Similipal forests is now under control & no loss of life has been reported due to the incident.
The Similipal forests are invaluable, not just for India but for the entire world. I appreciate the efforts of forest officials to contain the fire."
The fire in the Simlipal forest has been raging since February, 2021. The last media update of the situation came on March 7, 2021, according to which the northern and southern parts of the tiger reserve had reported close to 300 fire points.
Various measures were taken to bring the fire under control like the creation of temporary fire lines through cleaning of leaf litter and ground flora and engagement of additional manpower as a fire watcher in addition to the existing protection squad.
To know the current status of the Simlipal forest, The Logical Indian got in touch with a local journalist, Manas Behera, who is based in Mayurbhanj. Describing the whole situation Manas said, "There is still fire raging in some of the south point of Simlipal forest and in the core area of the forest. People are not able to enter the core area but the fire is less than what it was earlier."
"Forest department lacks a lot of gear and equipment which is needed in these types of situations. There is a need to use drones in this situation but the forest department is not using them. This situation needs a lot of staff which the department lacks right now. Many staff have not been paid till now. Regular payment boosts the confidence of staff which is lacking. The forest officials should collaborate with the local villagers but here no one is allowed to enter the core area of the forest as the officials fear that the real situation will get out if anyone will capture anything. There is a lack of staff in the department which is not good for Similipal as the fire is still raging."
When asked about the claims being made by officials in which it is being claimed that everything is controlled, Manas told The Logical Indian, "Officials are not telling the real situation of the reserve forest. 15,000 trees have been destroyed in the reserve forest which is beside the national highway. The forest department office is just 2km away from the reserve forest despite they couldn't control the fire. There is a lot of destruction in the core area but we are not able to see as no one is allowed to go there except the forest officials. They are not showing the real destruction, they are only telling that everything is under control."
Talking on the issue of whether the wildlife has been affected or not Manas said, "I can't say this with guarantee because this kind of record is maintained by the officials only. When the first fire broke up, at that time officials were intimated by the locals. Now they are saying that these fires took place because of locals. Anyone should think before saying these, why will the villagers put the forest on fire? They live near the forest. They earn and eat from the forest. There is a possibility that poachers might have done this."
In an attempt to blow out a fire in a forest near the Simlipal National Park in Odisha's Mayurbhanj district, a guard was burnt alive on Sunday, March 21.
According to police officials, this incident happened at the Jadnil Forest Reserve of Thakurmunda range in Karanjia forest division, reported Orissa Post.
The deceased guard has been identified as Jadu Mahanta who was 58-years-old and was working with the state forest department as a contractual guard.
Giving details of the incident, police said, "Mahanta was caught in a fiery whirlwind while trying to blow out the fire and unfortunately, he was burnt alive during that event. Thakurmunda police station has registered a case of unnatural death and for post mortem, the body has been sent to Karanjia Sub-divisional Hospital."
Earlier to this incident, on Friday night two persons were arrested by the Thakurmunda forest department for setting jungles on fire.
Both the accused, Bhuteshwar Naik and Phatu Dandapat of Talapada village, were produced before a local court where their bail pleas got rejected and they were sent to judicial custody.
"Forester Nalikant Mohanta, forest guards Kishore Patra and Sachhidananda Behera with some forest staff were on patrol on Friday night. The patrol was led by Thakurmunda range officer Kishore Kumar Panigarhi. As a part of their local tradition, Bhuteshwar and Phatu were cooking inside the forest where they set some dried leaves on fire through which the fire eventually spread. We nabbed the duo after we saw the flame," said the forest department.
The Logical Indian tried to get in touch with the officials of the Similipal forest over this matter, but there was no reply from their side.
However, IFS Pradeep Mirase, DFO of Malkangiri Forest, said, "Right now, the fire has been extinguished by the forest department but the fire is recurring because in summer there is a lot of incidence like this which happens on a regular basis. This is not a major fire. This is a surface fire which is caught because the dried leaves catch fire easily."
On the question of damage caused by the fire, Mirase said, "I am posted in Malkangiri division which is opposite to Similipal so I can't say with surely but as per our officials record the fire was a surface fire which only affected the bushes. Big trees were not affected by this and there is no damage to wildlife."
"We have procured every gear and equipment needed to combat these kinds of situations and we have plenty of staff to control the situation. Goggles, boots and every gear have been provided to the staff and now the major fire is under control. Every day we get instances of little fire at some points which is common during summer and we douse the fire on the same day."
We tried to talk with Biswasit Mohanty, secretary of the Wildlife Society of Odisha, over this whole issue but he could not be contacted.
The Logical Indian Take
Simlipal Biosphere Reserve is home to 1,078 species of plants including 94 species of orchids. It holds the highest tiger population in the state of Orissa. 55 species of mammals, 304 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles, 21 species of frogs, 38 species of fish and 164 species of butterflies have been recorded from the Park.
The Government of Orissa declared Simlipal as a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 with an area of 2750 sq km. Later in 1980, the Government of Orissa proposed 303 sq km of the sanctuary as a National Park. Further in 1986, the area of the National Park increased to 845.70 sq km.
The Government of India declared it as a biosphere reserve in 1994. UNESCO added this National Park to its list of Biosphere Reserves in May 2009.
Being such a rich area in flora and fauna, this forest is also an earning and surviving place for the local villagers who totally depend on the forest for their day to day living.
No concrete action on this issue by the concerned authorities, state government and the union government can result in a huge loss of nature which eventually will affect biodiversity and human sustainability.
This situation is being ignored by the national media, which is a pity.
Both the State and Central government should come up together to find out a quick and permanent solution for this problem. If this kind of fire occurs on a daily basis every year, the State and Central government should find a permanent solution to cope up with this kind of situation to save the biodiversity which is getting eroded day by day.