Wait 30 years for a few inches; 300 for the rest

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: The orange flames leapt up like an army of hissing snakes gone berserk. The searing heat singed, scalded, scorched and burnt every single shrub, root, leaf, branch or trunk that it could encompass in its wake.

The blazing, raging, maniacal inferno unleashed its fury like a gargantuan dragon spewing a gush of acrid brimstone smoke from its furious nostrils and the conflagration went completely out of control.

A pristine part of the sylvan Nagarahole national park—home of that mysterious streak of ochre, the awesome tiger and the lumbering slate grey handsomeness of the elephant, to just think of the two most famous denizens of the mesmerising, soul uplifting, almost divinity inspiring, swathes of wilderness in my part of the world—lay consigned to the innards of history; to the nether world of total annihilation and oblivion; the serpentine aloofness of the game roads of which, I have traversed times without number, in total delight and joy.

Some precious 600 hectares in the Kalhalla range of the national park lay in cinders; the dying embers of the fire that raged uncontrolled for almost close to three days; a gory, sad and tragic reminder of a conservation thought gone awry; the sense of hubris on the part of the powers-that-be, who manage the delicate ecological balance of the park being showcased in stark grotesqueness amidst the ashy white stumps dotting the landscape; vestiges of what were once grand, proud trees that sheltered a million creatures, big and small.

They say just for the first few inches of the upper substrate with its alluviality to re-appear could take about 30 years. And for the jungle to come back to its original state with the trees and their canopies and their eco-system, perhaps a 300! With the rains would have come the humus of the abundant leaf litter that would have aided in the sprouting of fresh grass.

Now the burnt area will show up as a bald patch for an interminably long time.

Nagarahole fell a victim of human rage, a kind of seething, unexplainable frustration that stems from the general feeling that you are not really wanted; of an impotent anger at being marginalised and discarded from the general scheme of things in these jungles, where the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, mandates emphatically that even to pick up a piece of dead or fallen timber is a punishable offence.

The rage stemmed from a tribal heart; those hapless, unfortunate men and women who were brought into the area by the British towards the latter part of the 19th century to raise and manage timber plantations and are now seen as a serious liability by the forest department and conservationists.

Between 1894 and 1901, the British conducted extensive timber logging operations in large tracts of Nagarahole that had come to be called reserve forests. Wood was in great demand in the shipping industry, for railways and the gold mines near Kolar.

The abundant availability of different species of timber made the idea of logging extremely viable. Hence, the Jenu Kurubas, Betta Kurubas and the Yeravas moved in. Under colonial management, the forests of India were seen as rich sources of valuable timber. Conservation, unfortunately, was not high on their agenda. Wild life was never really seen as worthy of being protected.

For the tribals though, life began to take a terribly uncertain turn after the British left in 1947, when the emphasis of forest management slowly began to shift from one of exploitation to that of conservation and protection.

The year 1973 saw the launch of Project Tiger as a desperate attempt to save this flagship species whose numbers had dropped precariously to around 1800 in 1972 from some 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century.

All these developments began to slowly but surely erode the legitimacy of the tribals and more importantly, took away the relevance of their existence inside the forests.

Life for them, inside the jungles of Nagarahole, became a question mark, much like the tail of the grey langurs that inhabit the high branches of the trees around their own settlements.

Talk of relocating them began to surface. Although the government’s thinking was not out of place, certain non-governmental organisations professing to ameliorate the lot of these tribals came into the picture, decidedly with a clear anti-government attitude, vitiating the atmosphere.

Amidst all this, in the nearly 55 tribal hamlets inside the Nagarahole jungles, men, women and children went about life with a certain anguish, an indescribable vulnerability and a sense of near rootlessness as the new milestone Act with its focus on the reduction of the use of forest biomass by humans, forbade them to collect even minor forest produce for selling; like honey, gooseberry, bamboo shoots, soap nut, lichen, tamarind and the barks of certain trees.

While it is indeed sensible to ensure that tribals vacate the jungles in due course, as the extremely sensitive and delicate biodiversity of places like Nagarahole simply cannot take the pressure of humans living there any more, a thought has to be spared to the confused, hapless, poor men and women who have lived there for a hundred years and more.

What is of solemn, paramount importance is to realise once and for all, that wild life conservation simply cannot be done in exclusion. Definitely not by antagonising or alienating those who have professed to understand and believe that the jungle is their legitimate home, no matter what the Wild Life (Protection)Act explains.

On the one hand, the tribals are seen as a serious nuisance to the cause of wild life conservation by foresters. On the other, the government of India passes the Tribal Bill in Parliament which envisions granting legitimacy and tenancy to those who have made the jungles and other wooded expanses of our land their home for centuries!

While it is wonderful to see tribal families move out at the behest of the government and its many schemes aimed at providing them alternative living outside the precincts of the national park, it also becomes incumbent on the managers of the park to build a certain rapport at a human level with those continuing to live inside and refusing to leave for whatever reason. That clearly seems to be non-existent.

How many times haven’t I seen sundry range forest officers either insult a tribal for no apparent reason or simply dismiss him from their midst.

As for the higher officers like the conservators and the rest, mostly even the thought of acknowledging the tribal as a fellow human being is as much a rarity as spotting a tiger on the asphalted road running across Nagarahole! Largely clueless, almost completely illiterate, poverty stricken, tense in the mind, quite often drunk on some cheap liquor, he nourishes a grudge. A kind of torment driven annoyance deep in his heart.

Come summer, when the mostly dry deciduous jungles turn into a living, breathing time bomb, ready to explode into flames at the flick of a match stick, the disgruntlement and the frustration, the anger and angst combine to wreak unspeakable havoc.

For sure, not all tribals harbour such evil thoughts in their mind, but how many angry minds does it take to set fire to a ready-to-burn accumulation of impossible-to-contain combustible biomass?

My own conversations with a cross section of guards and watchers, along the length and breadth of Nagarahole; the actual foot soldiers who strive to safeguard our jungles to the extent possible, generally reveal the point that tribals in the area have to be made to feel a certain oneness with the rank and file of the forest department, importantly the officers.

A kind word, the placing of a friendly arm across their largely bent and impoverished shoulders; a certain gesture of goodwill; an address by the ranger or the conservator at a few key hamlets, educating them to preserve rather than destroy.

Appealing to them not to harm the forests and co-operate with the forest department staff, especially during summer, like it was quite successfully done in the 54 distant and deep ‘podus’ or settlements of the Soliga tribals in the jungles clothing the B.R. Hills in Chamaraja Nagar district, at the behest and initiative of certain well meaning wild lifers; they feel, would have done a great deal to prevent such disastrous incidents like the recent one in Nagarahole.

Incidentally, there has not been a major forest fire in the B.R. Hills area for the past four years where prominent tribal leaders were made to take an oath in the name of Mother Nature on behalf of all the members of their settlements not to disturb or harm the jungles around. The police department was also brought in to be part of such meetings just to instill a certain fear of the penal law as well. All subtle human management ideas, really.

But quite sadly, in the Nagarahole national park, no such moves seem to have been made for decades, leading to a serious disconnect between the forest department and the tribals living there.

And to top it all, there are theories floated around every time a fire occurs that trees rubbing against each other cause sparks to light up; and even worse, the hooves of deer and such other ungulates jam into flint stones causing a conflagration! Not even in the Jurassic era would any paleontologist, worth his own fossil, agree!

A case of double distilled bunkum being bandied about by men of rare idiocy.

Fires happen because of humans. And when you have a section of angry, disgruntled, humans inside a national park, the intensity of the fires they light can be seen from a long distance indeed.

Photographs: courtesy D. Rajkumar