Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gir forest fire: was it sabotage?

Aaras k jha & jumana shah. ahmedabad
was tuesday's wildfire in gir forest a result of some accident or deliberately started by poachers to divert foresters' attention? the wildfire that gutted over 300 hectares of deciduous grassland and forest in mitayala has both foresters and wildlife experts very worried. they suspect that the blaze may have been started by poachers to distract foresters and guards, and divert their energies away from guarding against poachers to controlling the fire.

While the forest department is investigating what started the fire, it is known from past experience (though never proven) that such fires are frequently started by criminal elements to divert foresters' attention so that poachers can kill wildlife or steal other forest produce without getting caught. sources said that such fires are also started to discredit the forest department or sometimes simply to settle scores with some forest personnel.

Talking about the fire that broke out on tuesday, the conservator of forests, junagadh, mm sharma, said the forest fire was very small at the beginning but it soon spread over a wide area because of strong winds. "around 300 to 500 hectares of deciduous forest may have been lost," sharma said. "we have to investigate the cause of the fire but the possibility of this being a deliberate act by some local people cannot be ruled out."

Environmentalist manish vaidya, who is closely involved with wildlife conservation in the country, said that there could be many causes of the fire.

poachers to blame?
"the involvement of some poachers' gang cannot be ruled out," environmentalist manish vaidya said. "they are known to operate in this manner."

be that as it may, it will be difficult for forest officials to absolve themselves of all responsibility in the matter. while senior forest officials do not want to be quoted on the sensitive issue of poachers' movements in the sanctuary when elections are round the corner, they admit that they cannot afford a poaching controversy so close to the lok sabha polls.

principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) pradip khanna flatly denied that officials were keeping mum because of the forthcoming polls. "the cause of the fire in gir forest has not been established yet," he said. "moreover, the fire was not that serious as only dry grass and leaves were burnt. we will definitely be inquiring into its cause but, prima facie, it appears that the fire was accidental. we don't think that there was any loss of wildlife as it was a ground fire. but we will find out the truth."

deputy conservator of forest, gir (east), m raja, denies there had been any movement of poachers in the forest area during the fire. "the fire may have been started deliberately by local people because we catch and penalise people who encroach on forest land to graze their cattle," he said. "they start such fires to discredit us."

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