Environment
Evidence suggests at least part of the reason these fires have raged out of control is that forest officials aren’t making an effort to understand the ecosystems in which they operate.

Mahadeva NC sat in the passenger seat of a government jeep on an April morning as it rattled its way along a rock-studded trail, out to a part of Bandipur Tiger Reserve called Gopalaswamy Betta that had recently been consumed by fire. He’d only been on the job six months, but he’d taken over as range forest officer in-charge of the area after the previous officer was suspended with pay while officials tried to figure out how the flames sparked and spread. Blazes had ripped through some 15,000 acres inside Bandipur toward the end of February, more than enough to make headlines and therefore more than enough to launch an investigation.

Mahadeva was dressed head to ankle in the khaki uniform of his position and kept a 2019 planner beside him decorated with a picture of MS Dhoni in the butter-yellow uniform of the Chennai Super Kings. The driver sped and swerved over lumps in the road as though he had memorized each turn years ago. The trip was meant to showcase how forest officers and fire watchers patrolled this part of Bandipur, their eyes scanning shrubs, trees, and grass for thin trails of smoke, and Mahadeva was eager to talk about his area’s anti-fire preparations, half-shouting over the grumbling engine. 

Gopalaswamy Betta runs alongside a patch of terrain inhabited by farmers and villagers, and the border is a thick road shorn of any brush that might catch fire. Teams of fire watchers walk along the road or scan the area from watchtowers posted along the route. If they see smoke or fire, they pull out a walkie talkie and radio the general location to whoever is in range, and soon enough a forest ranger drives by in a jeep. Fire watchers pile in, and off they go to put out the flames. 

Although forest officers burn off some brush in the border area, their basic ethos is to stamp out all fire, everywhere. None of this is new, but now infernos have torn across Bandipur and other south Indian reserves for at least a decade, despite efforts to repress them. Evidence suggests at least part of the reason these fires have raged out of control is that forest officials aren’t making an effort to understand the ecosystems in which they operate, which makes post-fire investigations a little odd. How are investigators supposed to determine what a ranger could have done to stop or control a fire if those investigators no longer know how Bandipur fires spread? This dissonance is also not new. Bandipur’s landscape has recently evolved in a strange and dangerous way, and it was arguably allowed to do so because of a misreading of its ecosystem that dates back nearly 100 years. 

Mistaking trees for the forest

The Indian Forest Act of 1927 still guides forestry departments across the country. Chapter two of the Act lists many things that are illegal to do in “reserved forests,” one of which is to light them on fire. On its face this seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth including in the law, but the Act’s attitude toward fire was steeped in the desires of colonial foresters who were used to dealing with the woods of Europe, and whose main purpose in maintaining healthy trees in India was to chop them down and sell them as timber. In Europe, fire can devastate trees, and in India it was seen as a threat to profits.

Perhaps the most damaging part of this Act is the name itself. Its assumption is that a collection of trees is self-evidently a forest, but the reserves and national parks of south India are something else entirely, according to Jayashree Ratnam, the associate director of the wildlife biology and conservation programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru.

The research of Ratnam and others has shown that the “forests” of south India are actually mesic savannas, defined by broken tree canopies and grass that sprouts in the space unoccupied by tree trunks. These savannas not only withstand fire, but might need it to survive. 

“They do go hand in hand, and they did so before human intervention,” she said. 

Quick fires burn through patches of grass during the dry season, readying the soil for new shoots on which animals can feed. Trees in savannas have evolved thicker trunks to survive these fires, but another irony of the Indian Forest Act’s fire policy is that its attempts at prevention may have slowly led to a type of blaze that these trees -- and the ecosystem in general -- aren’t ready for. 

At the beginning of a 2017 paper in Economic and Political Weekly, coauthored by several scientists including Ratnam and Tarsh Thekaekara, a conservationist with the Shola Trust who has studied Bandipur, is a saying attributed to Kattunayakan Adivasis: If you do not burn the forest, it will burn. Brush builds up in the absence of small clearing fires that Adivasis sparked to prevent the spread of larger blazes long before the British made this illegal. This likely contributes to the periodic eruption of headline-making fires, and the prevention of smaller fires may have allowed a new type of kindling to warp the landscape, turning Bandipur and other reserves into places where infernos are nearly impossible to prevent.

Lantana camara -- a decorative shrub-turned-invasive weed that the British once planted in botanical gardens -- has stormed the understory throughout much of south India’s reserves. It grew so thick along the drive around Gopalaswamy Betta that three elephants, spooked by the jeep, crashed through bundles of lantana and disappeared as though they’d dashed behind a curtain. Lantana burns more slowly than grass, allowing fires to heat up and last longer. Imagine starting a campfire by igniting an old newspaper and then replacing that newspaper with a log. The shrub also grows much higher than grass, which means fires can use it to climb through the canopy of trees, beyond the protection of thick bark.

The same small, controlled fires that burned away brush could have stopped lantana from creeping into the grass. There is “some evidence that burning does reduce the seed bank of lantana in the soil,” said Ankila Hiremath, a plant ecologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. 

With the spread of lantana, it’s no longer clear what these mesic savannas have become.

“I have a sinking feeling that we are looking at an ecosystem that’s changed to an alternate state,” Ratnam said. 

Changes seen and unseen

Bandipur Director T Balachandra works out of an office in a small, squat building along the entrance road to the reserve. Most people who’ve been to Bandipur have probably driven right by it. The entrance is a thick wooden door, the top half of which is carved into the head and neck of a tiger. Inside, the walls are adorned with photos of more tigers, foxes, an elephant thrusting its trunk and tusks above water, and a leopard staring straight at the camera. The building is centered around a small courtyard over which the roof is open to rain but covered with a chain-link fence to keep out any curious monkeys. 

Balachandra sits in a black wheelie chair behind a deep wooden desk, wearing a short-sleeve navy blue button-down, a pen with a light blue cap sticking out of his breast pocket. He often speaks to three people at once, taking stacks of documents from people who wander in and out of his office, signing some and leaving others for later. Questions about fire illicit a kind of forced patience from him, like he’s heard them dozens of times and didn’t enjoy answering them to begin with. 

The news around this year’s fires was sensational because the flames were so visible, he said. Once the public can see smoke, headlines follow, even though “these fires are not a new phenomenon” in Bandipur. 

He’s not wrong, but this conflates two types of fire -- the quick blazes that have always burned up dry grass, and the slower-burning lantana fires that can consume acres of savanna -- and referencing Bandipur’s historical relationship with fire implies that this relationship hasn’t changed.

BK Singh, a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests for Karnataka, said the fires that now tear through Bandipur every few years didn’t happen decades ago.

Part of the reason for this may be that, as Ratnam alluded to, scientists are no longer sure how to classify Bandipur’s ecosystem. They need to study how fire sweeps through this mix of grass, trees, and lantana, but many forest officials are firm in their belief that the department’s policy is settled, and Ratnam said it’s become harder in recent years to get the necessary permissions to do any research around fire. 

Fifteen years ago, she would have said of course it’s fine that Bandipur burns, but now she’s not so sure. This type of fire might also change how the landscape responds once it’s burned out. Whereas cooler grass fires make room for fresh shoots, intense fires can degrade the soil so that it becomes open terrain for any hearty plant that can pump out swarms of seeds, such as lantana. 

Setting fire to small chunks of terrain might do more than provide fodder for scientific journals. By igniting controlled burns every few years and studying the fire and how the landscape responds to it, ecologists could show officials a way to cull brush and lantana and promote grass, breaking the cycle of news-making blazes and reshaping management at Bandipur and other south Indian reserves. 

“Strangely enough, I think that the solution to get rid of lantana may involve fire once again,” Ratnam said. “These are the kinds of things we want to do experiments for.”