Big chunk of prime forest lost to fire, will Bandhavgarh end up like Sariska?

Experts suspect foul play because it’s not possible that all seven ranges of the national park, with rich forest cover and the highest tiger density in the world, catches fire overnight

Spread over an area of 3,607 sq km, Bandhavgarh is home to 141 tigers, as per the 2018 census.

This may well be the most audacious act of arson in recent times, causing extensive damage to one of the best tiger reserves in India. Yet nobody seems to be losing any sleep over it. Bandhavgarh National Park in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh, where the chances of tiger sightings is considered high, has just lost a big chunk of its forest cover. A large part of the prime tiger habitat is gone, though the state forest minister claims only 1% of the forest is damaged. Nevertheless, the raging fire raced through seven prime ranges of the reserve last month. And all this happened in a matter of just 72 hours!

The speed with which the miscreants set fire to Bandhavgarh caught the forest authorities napping. The flames erupted in a single night, but at different places. Now the forest officials are busy covering up their inefficiency.

Officials refused to divulge the areas affected, but the fire is said to have spread across seven ranges, including Panpatha, Khitoli, Tala and Manpur. The central Tala zone, known for high tiger population, is also said to be impacted. By the time the fire was reportedly detected on March 29, it had spread all across the reserve.

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The Madhya Pradesh government’s lack of trust the in the Bandhavgarh forest authorities in this particular case became clear from the sequence of events that followed. By the time the fire was detected on March 29, it had spread all across the reserve. Next day, the Chief Minister’s office sent an SOS to the Umaria collector Sanjeev Shrivastava and not to the forest department. This was an unusual, but the correct decision. The bureaucrats calling the shots from Bhopal probably realised that not only had the forest department faltered in sizing up the seriousness of the situation in time, but also failed to stop the flames from spreading.

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So the CM office turned to the civil administration.

It was mainly because of collector Shrivastava, and the fire-fighters whom he marshalled at a short notice, that the blaze could be put out within 48 hours. Shrivastava doesn’t want to go into who-did-what and other aspects of the fire. “I had to act when the Chief Minister’s Office contacted me,’’ he said, adding it was now the job of the forest department to get to the bottom of the matter. If at all there were miscreants behind the fire, he said, the forest authorities should lodge an FIR and go after them.

According to the country-wide tiger status assessment in 2018 done by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) under Project Tiger, India was estimated to have a total tiger population of 2,967, an increase from 2,226 in the 2014 estimate. Madhya Pradesh has the maximum number of tigers in the country with 526, while the Bandhavgarh National Park along with Guru Ghasidas (Sanjay) National Park has 141 tigers, according to the 2018 National Tiger Census. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the park had welcomed six tiger cubs and three leopard cubs, a news that was shared by the twitter account of the national park.

Bandhavgarh, which became a tiger reserve in 1993, is spread over 105 square kilometres and has a core area of 716 square kilometres. It said to be home to about 70 tigers. Till a few years ago, it was touted as the best managed national park of India with the highest tiger density in the world.

The fire can only be an act of miscreants, says the former field director of Bandhavgarh Mridul Pathak. For one, it’s not possible — even by stretching the law of probability — that the seven ranges which account for the richest forest cover and most abundant wildlife in all of 1,500 square kilometre of Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, should catch fire overnight, and that too by a natural cause, especially when it’s not even the start of the fire season.

Therefore, a fire erupting in all the seven ranges at the same time begs two questions: Who set the Bandhavgarh reserve on fire? And why? Choosing to answer the second question first, Pathak says it may well be because the perpetrators harboured some kind of a grudge against the forest department.

Having managed the affairs of Bandhavgarh earlier as a field director, and before that as its deputy director, Pathak knows what he is talking out. “In the course of administrating a first class tiger reserve like Bandhavgarh,’’ says he, “we often end up taking action against a lot of wrong-doers, at times even stepping on the toes of key figures. But then all kind of people have all kinds of connections. This can have repercussions for us later on, because that person bides his time to strike back. In this case, the jungles were set on fire in the dead of the night. By the look of it, as also by the huge circumstantial evidence scattered all around, it was a meticulous operation. Whoever went about doing it must have done sufficient planning before executing the act.”

Also read: From near extinction to healthy rate of growth, the tale of Indian tiger’s survival

As to who torched Bandhavgarh and why, quite a few theories are floating around. Some find favour with the forest staff and some with the locals. One such hypothesis concerns a large herd of elephants that entered Bandhavgarh from the Chhattisgarh side three years ago and which has made the tiger reserve its permanent abode. The arrival of these giants, though a welcome addition to Bandhavgarh’s wildlife, also had an undesirable effect. It sparked off a man-elephant conflict in the place.

Bandhavgarh, like so many other national parks in India, is surrounded by a large number of villages. At several places, no real border or buffer exists between a village and the forest. This often poses problems for both humans and wildlife. Elephants get lured by standing crops in the adjacent villages and make the most of the opportunity. These turn out to be easy pickings. But the loss of crop, or a serious damage to it, leaves a poor Indian farmer with an uncertain future.

When elephants cause extensive damage to crops, farmers approach the forest department for compensation. But, in most cases, it’s alleged, the amount offered is far less than the actual financial loss suffered by a farmer. This, over time, led to a welling up of farmers’ anger and resentment. On March 29, the dam of their patience burst, or so believe a number of people (including a few forest officials) eking their livelihood from the tiger reserve.

According to yet another theory, the fire may well have been started by ‘Holi’ revelers. Or even by the collectors of `mahua’, a forest product in great demand and source of income for thousands of people living around Bandhavgarh. The field director of the tiger reserve, Wincent Rahim has already said that this fire did not “look normal’’, clearly hinting at foul play.

Will these angles help to ferret out the truth or are they carefully created smoke-screen to veer away from the truth? For the record, an official inquiry into Bandhavgarh fire is already on. But what comes out of it is anybody’s guess.

In recent years, there have been cases of official apathy and incompetence wiping out gains accrued after decades of hard work and conservation efforts. Ever wonder how Sariska and Panna, the two major tiger reserves in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh respectively, lost all their big cats? It was a national shame, both the incidents, but the thing to remember is that this did not happen in one day. It became clear on hindsight that the forest authorities at both the places chose to slumber or look the other way even when the tigers population under their charge were decimated systematically.

Both Sariska and Panna have got some of their tigers back, thanks to their relocation from other places after New Delhi’s intervention. But that doesn’t take away from the original goof-ups and acts of omission. One only hopes the story does not play out on similar lines in Bandhavgarh. Today, the forest has taken the brunt; tomorrow it could be something equally precious, say a tiger.

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