TOs the flames are moving fast, snaking rapidly upward into the treacherous terrain of Similipal National Park and turning everything on the ground to smoldering ash, the women are in hot pursuit. Throwing his dupattas on their shoulders, the sweat dripping from their foreheads, they vigorously beat the flames with leafy branches to put them out. Nearby, a forest department official armed only with a leaf blower works to remove the leaves that fuel the fire.
Finally, when the Similipal hills in the Indian state of Odisha get too steep, the women back off. “It is very smoky and hot, but for the past two weeks, we have been helping put out the fires in every way possible,” says Sanjukta Basa, president of the local environmental NGO. Sangram.
For more than a month, the Similipal National Park and the tiger reserve have burned, causing incalculable devastation in the second largest biosphere reserve in Asia. In this fragile ecosystem live tigers, leopards, elephants, deer, wild boars, pangolins, antelopes, more than 200 species of birds and around 3,000 species of plants, including rare orchids and many that are used for medicinal purposes by the indigenous communities of area. , known as the Adivasis, living in 1,200 villages in and around the reserve.
Basa leads a group of 10 women who work to protect Similipal. In recent weeks they have become de facto firefighters while trying to control the fires. But fighting forest fires here is no easy feat. Similipal’s virtually impenetrable protected forests stretch for more than 2,150 square miles (5,570 square kilometers) and cover rugged and treacherous terrain, meaning they are largely inaccessible except on foot.
No fire truck can reach these parts, so state forest department officials and volunteers use whatever resources they have at hand: leaf and branch blowers. “It is difficult, sometimes the flames have been between two and three meters high, so we had no hope,” says Basa.
These wildfires are caused by humans. They are started by poachers and a minority of local indigenous tribes, who use llamas to hunt and forage for food. This year’s fires have been the worst in Similipal’s history due to a collision of circumstances that many believe could have been prevented.
Vanoo Mitra Acharya, a wildlife activist and co-founder of Sangram, says that in his 20 years of work at Similipal “I have never seen fires like this.” He says the region’s changing climate, coupled with the growing communication gap and rampant mistrust between the government’s forest department and tribal communities, is to blame.
“We haven’t rained for about five months, which is very unusual, so the leaves on the ground have been burning like paper,” says Acharya. “But also, the forest department has lost the trust of tribal communities, who are often the first to put out these fires. Unlike in previous years, these towns did not call to give warnings and did not fight the fires ”.
He adds: “This communication failure and the inability of the government to act adequately and quickly when the fires first broke out is the reason why Similipal continues to burn.”
Since February 11, more than 3,400 fires have been detected in the four divisions of the national park, including about 350 within the tiger reserve. While most are extinct, some continue to burn. The Odisha forest department was accused of being poorly prepared, and the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued warnings to tiger reserves across India to be on the alert and take preventive measures against similar fires.
Some have accused the Odisha state government of showing little interest in fighting the fires until Save Similipal social media campaign began to gather momentum in early March. The government has stated that no large trees or tigers, elephants or human lives have been lost. However, environmentalists say the fires will set Similipal back decades and local NGO Antyodaya Chetana Mandal estimates that the fires have affected nearly 25% of the national park’s flora and fauna.
“The forest department says there has been no serious damage, which is ridiculous,” says Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the Odisha Wildlife Society.
“There has been a great impact on Similipal’s biodiversity. Birds, snakes, lizards, monitor lizards, peacocks and pangolins would have been caught in the fire, but you won’t see it because they would have been burned to ashes. Thousands of medicinal plants and saplings that are essential to the forest ecosystem have been eliminated. “
“Similipal is famous for its orchids, it has 95 species, and thousands will have been lost.”
Much of the blame for the fires has been directed at Adivasi communities, who account for nearly 75% of the occupants of Similipal villages. However, while some Adivasis are involved in poaching and the practice of using fire to help search for the mahua flower, which is used to make a liquor, most say it is only a small minority.
“Our people have always protected the forests,” says Tikaram Soren, the leader of a small village that dominates the forest. “We have faced tremendous resistance from other villages because we have been preventing all illegal activities such as logging, poaching, burning and even harvesting leaves from the forests. We are concerned because we have never seen it burn like this. “
Rabindra Mohanta, leader of the local environmental protection group Vana Suraksha Samiti, who has been at the forefront of fighting the Similipal fires, says that with just a few forest department officials posted to cover thousands of square miles, the only way to stop the fires is to empower the local adivasis.
“Some people from the forest department can’t do much, only the Adivasi community that lives around here can save the jungle from the fires,” says Mohanta. “These people love the jungle, nature is still the God they worship from life to death.
“The forest department needs to listen to them, work hand in hand with them, and give them the promised financial compensation for helping fight the fires.”
However, it is a sisyphus task for forest department officials responsible for vast areas of Similipal, with limited resources and personnel. Among them is Snehalata Dhal, 33, who has been a forest department officer for a decade. She says she has spent every day and night trying to fight the fires in her 20 km2 (8 square miles) area with nothing but branches. A video of her crying with joy while the rains finally fell on Similipal last week went viral.
Dhal says: “I am doing my best to work with the local villages, but more education is needed to prevent them from starting these fires. However, more importantly, it is also necessary to create alternative livelihoods for these people. They cannot continue to depend so much on the forest because that is the route of the fires ”.
Sangram is one of the few groups working to bridge the gap between the state and the Adivasis in an effort to save Similipal. Their methods are unusual, deploying a traditional street theater group to perform before the Adivasis, spreading the message of how to save the jungle that is their home and their religion. Last week, while the smoke from the forest fire still hung heavy in the air, the company reached the village of Palasbani, neighboring Similipal, where its songs gradually drew people from their homes.
“Let’s save the jungle that gives us life and the trees that give us oxygen,” they sang. “No more fires in Similipal”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism