February 27, 2012
Managing forest fires in southern India: contravening established tradition in an Asian society
While not strictly concerning elephants, this topic has to do with an important aspect concerning their habitat, namely forest fires. It’s a complex issue and I wanted to pen down my thoughts regarding it. Every February & March, during the peak of the dry summer season, fires erupt throughout the dry deciduous forests of southern India, including those the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is comprised of numerous protected forests such as Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves and many more reserve and buffer forest areas. This region is home to about a quarter of the total wild Asian elephant population in the world as well as many other endangered species, so it’s understandable that wildlife managers would want to protect this habitat in every way possible.
One of the ways that wildlife managers try to protect habitat is by controlling forest fires and putting them out wherever they do break out. This is done because forest fires in this part of the world are not “natural” in the sense that they are in North America or other regions where they are set off by lightning or other physical phenomena. Forest fires in southern India are set by humans from the forest-dwelling tribes who live in the forest. These fires are set in order to clear off the undergrowth so that fresh grass and pasture can grow with the arrival of the pre-monsoon thundershowers in April. The fires also enable them to collect tubers and other forest products easily from the burned areas. Most importantly, the forest-dwelling tribes sincerely believe that the fires are critical for the well-being of the forest and its regeneration.
That last aspect is the most critical because it is also the hardest issue to address. Asian societies tend to be very traditional and it can be exceedingly difficult to implement policies that run contrary to centuries old traditions, especially in rural areas. For that matter, even some of the wealthiest and most-educated Asians place a lot of import when it comes to some traditions, such as vaastu or feng shui, where large amounts of money are spent to ensure that house constructions are in harmony with these traditional concepts.
And of course, not all traditions are equal. Some traditions are harmless or even positive, such as the ones mentioned above, while some traditions are extremely harmful in today’s conservation context, such as the use of endangered animal parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine and need to continue to be greatly restricted. Yet other traditions fall in that grey area in between where we don’t really know what to make of them. The practice of setting fire in south Indian forests is one of them.
To be sure, our forests aren’t fire-adapted ones like those in North America, for example, where fire is needed for the propagation of some of the species and is a necessary part of the ecosystem. At the same time, fire and other disturbances by humans have been so common in this region for such a long time, our forests are very hardy when it comes to withstanding these (among many) disturbances. Fires in this region are often low-intensity fires that burn rapidly through the grass and shrub, but leave trees largely unaffected.
Photo above: Forest fires burn grass and shrub and move rapidly through the forest, leaving trees largely unscathed. The tree on the left that’s on fire is already dead and the fire at tree level in the centre of the picture is on a creeper.
While the landscape can look bleak and desolate in the immediate aftermath of a fire, the scene is dramatically different just a few weeks after the first heavy pre-monsoon summer thundershowers.
Photo above: The scene on April 4, 2007, a couple of days after a forest fire swept through this area.
Photo above: The scene in the same area on April 30, 2007, about two weeks after the first few heavy pre-monsoon thundershowers.
While on the surface of it, the forest may seem fine in the aftermath, it is of course pretty much impossible to calculate what exactly all the effects of forest fires are on the ecosystem. Even one of my friends, who has studied forest fire ecology in this region for her Ph.D. dissertation, was unable to say definitively whether forest fires are good for the forest, as the tribals believe, or bad for it, as the wildlife managers believe. So at the end of it, we are left not knowing whether fire is good or bad for the ecosystem, but knowing that the ecosystem is a hardy one and reasonably tolerant of disturbances such as fire.
Bringing us to current management policies. Every year, wildlife managers in this region perform controlled burning of roadsides ahead of the summer fire season. They shut down the national parks to tourism and have an army of staff, the majority of it temporary, ready to be deployed on a 24-7 basis to control fires that do break out. And despite all these efforts, the forests literally continue to go up in flames year on year. From a practical standpoint, the current efforts simply do not seem to deliver results to justify the expenditures incurred.
One major reason for this is that the setting of fires is an established tradition, one that simply can’t be told to stop. Awareness programmes employed by wildlife managers will certainly have an impact over the long run, perhaps persuading the next generation to change their practices. But it’s unlikely to have much of an effect in the short run.
The other reason perhaps has less to do with tradition and more to do with basic economics. People belonging to forest-dwelling tribes generally set forest fires. People belonging to forest-dwelling tribes also generally make up the vast majority of the temporary fire-fighting staff employed by wildlife managers to control the fires that do break out.
It’s time for some new thinking. For example, it’s worth considering whether by ceasing fire-control efforts, the number of fires themselves can be reduced. Even more, if so many people from forest-dwelling tribes didn’t have the virtually guaranteed source of income from fire-fighting work every summer, perhaps more would take the voluntary relocation package offered by the government and resettle out of the forest. And less people in forests is something that all conservationists can agree on, regardless of what their views on fire may be.
So while the debate on fire and whether and how to control it rages on, I think everyone can agree on at least one thing. It does look very pretty at night on the hillsides.