“Bhaiyaji lagta hai rhino area mein aag lagi hai!” / “There is a fire in the rhino area,” said my field assistant gazing at a distant piece of land, while we were en route to my study site, the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. As we entered the rhino reintroduction area that evening, the mere glimpse and spread of those fires made my heart skip a beat; it was both a moment of astonishment and confusion. Remnants of dry-tall grasses hovered all over me and the winter sky was covered in smog. Preparing for my research, I remembered reading about these fires but had never imagined such visuals. This made me wonder where all the animals were hiding during such a dramatic event. What is the importance of fire in a grassland anyway?
Fire, though perceived negatively, has been an important part of forest and grassland management across India. Fires could be natural as in the case of annual fires in Uttarakhand (North India) or man-made where a slight flicker may escalate in seconds. While the former is part of most natural habitats of India, the latter is as old as the colonial regime itself, where British officers started using it as a management tool. Though deemed under the blanket term of “grasslands”, the short and dry scrublands of the Deccan plateau, mountainous undulations of the western ghats and the vast swathes of alluvial floodplains in India differ remarkably. To be precise, these differences arise due to the varying environmental conditions they occur in along with the flora and fauna they support. Given these variations, this practice that dates back at least two centuries is clearly not a good example of one size fits all.
Yet, fire has been used extensively in ‘grassland’ management in the country. Ironically, the origin of this remains rather ambiguous among both natural historians and present forest officials. Amidst many rationales, stimulating fresh vegetation growth for its herbivores has been the most accepted one. Yet, how this affects other species which find refuge in all these grasslands is not known. The magnitude of fires whether natural or man-made can escalate to national level emergencies and affect a diversity of inhabitants. In this context, I set out to understand how fires affect the floodplain grasslands of Himalayan foothills, where threatened and ground-dwelling species like the Bengal florican (also called Bengal bustard) and the hispid hare reside, besides many amphibians and reptiles.
Bags packed and full of zeal, in the winter of 2019, I ventured out to study these grassland systems and their herbivore residents in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve of North India. In excitement, I traversed these vast and dense grasslands along with my field assistants and forest staff, slashing tall grasses in our way and getting our hands bruised by sharp grass blades. Therein, I looked for animal signs and noted down grass characteristics. I was content thinking that all this would be far easier post-fire in the months of March and April. However, this did not turn out as planned.
“The controlled burning of grassland should be discontinued”, was a simple suggestion made by experts and scientists at a workshop organized for assessing grassland management in the area. The rationale behind this being that fire promotes invasive grasses, which could be harmful to the ecosystem. To my surprise, this was adhered by the Forest Department and they decided to stop it with immediate effect. This hit me hard since my entire research work was based on understanding complex fire dynamics. However, I composed myself remembering the scarce studies uncovering the negative impacts of such fires on birds and other small reptiles in the temperate systems. In the spirit of science, I contended myself that this was an important step for the greater good of these habitats.
This brought about a change in the operations of the forest department. With an overhauling change from rampant burning, this time the Forest Department set up experimental plots with different combinations of methods like grass cutting, ploughing, and burning to realise their effects in the long run. To my mind, this is an important and progressive step by the forest officials where they are open to engaging with science. This indicates their shift in management approach which is often considered to be tied up with colonial norms.
However, the ecosystems of north India are a complex conservation landscape. They are affected by several challenges from increasing anthropogenic pressures to the larger issue of climate breakdown. In the last century itself, 80% of these grasslands have been converted into farmlands. Through my time in this landscape, I could sense the plight of both the people dependent on these areas and the forest department which strives to protect them, putting them at loggerheads with each other. This was evident from the fact that though the forest department in Dudhwa was rigid on not burning grasslands, the people living at the forest edges practised otherwise. The prime reason being that it promoted fresh fodder for their livestock. Altogether, this indicates how significant decisions such as stopping fire in the larger good for conservation needs an inclusive approach.
Conservation, in general, is complex since there are no specific principles to execute. It involves multiple aspects where understanding different facets that are critical to the cause, is the key. Therefore, employing scientific techniques to assess the effects of different management practices is a small step in the right direction. Consultations with various stakeholders before taking decisions that may directly or indirectly affect them, is extremely essential to ensure inclusive nature conservation. In order to develop viable fire management strategies for the grasslands, ecological studies may be incomplete without assessing socio-economic dimensions. Hence, using a socio-ecological perspective will help channel the decisions in safeguarding the last remnants of varied ecosystems of India.
This study was the part of a Master’s dissertation supported by NCBS-TIFR and WWF-India.