What happens in Similipal apparently stays in Similipal. That’s what occurred when a forest fire raged in the Odisha tiger reserve last month. For over a week, the flames did not catch attention as very little information made its way out of one of the first reserves to come up when Indira Gandhi rolled out the ambitious Project Tiger in 1973. Then a social media post caught the attention of Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who sent in an SOS to his counterpart in MoEFCC, Prakash Javadekar. And then like wildfire, Similipal was all over the news. In the span of a week between February 24 and March 2, nearly 380 fire points were reported.
Fire in the tiger land is not new. Every year, seasonal fires are recorded and dealt with. But 2021 has been a different year. A dry run-up and early arrival of summer added fuel to the fire. Spread over 2,745 sq km, Similipal is like a mini-district and the deciduous nature of forests makes firefighting difficult. The ravaging fire caught the Similipal management off guard. Though Odisha’s Forest Department offered explanations about no loss to humans and animals, the sheer impact on the green cover and its consequences cannot be overlooked. Much of the reasons behind the fire are human interference. From Mahul flower collection to poaching as well as bushmeat hunting, they are—and have always been—the main triggers. Only better conservation measures can minimise the detrimental impact of such activities but sadly, there has been little focus on Similipal while transparency has gone for a toss. The fact that community outreach of the forest administration is at its lowest ebb has not helped either.
As a firefighting measure, the state government has now formed a task force, which is welcome. But compartmentalising causes behind the fire will not help. The administration must not lose sight of climate change as a big factor. Augmentation in protection strategy as well as a greater role for stakeholder communities must be encouraged. Currently, the only sustainable tiger-bearing area in Odisha, Similipal occupies a key place in the state’s biodiversity landscape. It must be protected at any cost.