The Theni forest fire that shook Tamil Nadu on Sunday is an unpleasant wake up call for nature enthusiasts as well as forest authorities. With ten people charred to death in the massive inferno that blazed all night, experts and activists are outraged at the manner in which the forest department has failed to prevent the loss of lives.
‘Written permissions, local guidance must'
While it has become clear now that two groups of trekkers had gone into the forest, what is less clear is the paperwork in place for the trekking itself.
Speaking to TNM, Mac Mohan who works in the field of ecological conservation says, “Forest department permissions are needed in writing for such treks. Tamil Nadu is the only state in south that has not implemented The Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. It grants tribals and local forest dwellers the right to manage and protect forests and reduce strength of the forest department.”
Initial reports that emerged on Sunday evening showed several locals involved in the rescue operations. Mac Mohan says that the presence of locals is in fact a prerequisite for the treks that the Forest Department has failed to implement. “Local people will know which are the places that are dry and prone to forest fires. Locals need the forest for their survival. It is their livelihood. They will protect it. But the bureaucracy has alienated them from the forest.”
Precautions to be taken
In addition to guidance from the forest department staff and the locals in the area, recommendations for trekking should not be taken lightly, warn experts.
Speaking to reporters from her hospital bed, one trekker said that the fire began as they were eating lunch. This has put the spotlight on trekkers who light fires or cook barbecued meals in the forest.
“They cannot cook there. No flammables should be taken.The trekkers should carry wireless communication equipment like cell phones and GPS trackers. They have to wear camouflage clothes. Ample water should be taken,” says Mac Mohan.
Strictly warning against any poaching activities, activists also say that if there is wildlife, the forest department will bring some weapons for protection of the trekkers. Mac Mohan says, “People cannot take weapons. Only if it is safe, public should be allowed. Tribals need to be consulted about which areas are safe. They should involve locals at all stages of decision making regarding the forest. Their consent is important.”
While the loss of human life has sent shockwaves across the state, activists also point out that the loss to wildlife barely gets any news coverage.
Bharathi Dasan of Arulagam, a conservation organisation says, “People clear bushes to see ahead. They burn old forests so they can enrich new crops with it. There is harvesting of timber. I have even seen people clear shrubs because they like to see as far as ahead as the eye can see!”
Attributing the fires like these to ‘man made, deliberately and purposeful clearing of forests’, he also mourns the loss of endangered species over the years. “Reptiles are most affected by the fires in these regions. Birds and insects are destroyed in the pupa stage itself. It’s like a fire tsunami. It will take over in seconds. The tourists should have some knowledge about the place. At least one or two people should be knowledgeable about the ecology of the place so they can be aware of the effects of such a disaster and take precautions to prevent it.”
Prior communication with officials and locals
Sarav Urs who has been trekkin for many years says that forest fires in the area are common. “When there is already a forest fire, the forest department will not allow us to even cross the checkpoint. When we want to go on a trek, we inform the forest department one week before. We need written permissions. The forest department will arrange a ranger to accompany us along with the locals.”
However, he also agrees that despite your experience level as a trekker, precautions must be taken and jungle laws respected at all times.
While the bitter blame game is already afoot over the fires, the images of the inferno on Sunday are haunting lessons on safety for nature enthusiasts as well as the authorities.