Chopping a branch you’re sitting on | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 28, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:32 AM, February 28, 2021

Chopping a branch you’re sitting on

Humans are primarily to blame for causing an alarming rise in forest fires at the Sundarbans, finds a probe committee

Incidents of ever-increasing manmade forest fires at the Sundarbans are endangering the unique ecology that thrives in the world's largest mangrove forest -- the shield against natural calamities in the country's south-western coast. 

Between March 2002 and February 2021, there have been 24 forest fires in the eastern part of the Sundarbans alone. The fires burned down various trees, grasses and herbs on 71 acres and 70 decimals of land in the forest.

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According to the Forest Department at Sundarbans eastern zone, fires broke out in Katka Sanctuary area of Sharankhola Range in 2002; in Nangli Camp area of Dhansagar Station in Chandpai Range and in Aruaber Khal in 2004; and in Tulatala and Khutabari areas west of Aruabab Khal in Chandpai Range in 2005.

Also, there were fires in the forest near Terabeka khal, Amurbuniya, Kalamtajiya, Panchakuralia Bill and Dhansagor Station in 2006; in Nalban and Pachakuralia Beel areas on the banks of the Baleshwar river in 2007; in Gulshakhali area under Dhansagar station in 2010; in Nangli area under Dhansagar station in 2011; and near the Dhansagar station again in 2014.

In 2016, fires erupted in Nangli, Pachakuralia and Tulatali areas under Dhansagar station; in 2017 in Madrasa Chila area under the same station; and the last one in the same area on February 8 this year.

A committee probing the incidents in its report recommended a thorough investigation to ascertain the causes of the fires, to assess the extent of damage and to determine ways to avoid fire incidents in future.

The recommendations of the committee, however, are yet to be realised. 

According to the report of the committee, the primary causes of fire incidents in the Sundarbans include the use of flaming torches by honey collectors or by locals for driving away tigers or other wild animals, littering of burning cigarettes by fishermen, arid weather, drought and lighting up of bonfire by criminals hiding in the forest. 

Several of the recommendations made by the committee include excavation of rivers and canals next to localities right beside the forest, construction of watchtowers for every two-kilometre radius in fire prone areas, enforcement of round-the-clock surveillance during the dry season along the Bhola river under Chandpai Range and erecting barbed wire or nylon rope mesh fences around the protected areas of the forest.

It also recommended banning the possession of flammable materials such as bidi or cigarette while in the forest, equip the forest department with fire fighting equipment and provide fire fighting training to employees of the department.

Dr Sheikh Faridul Islam, chairman of 'Save the Sundarbans Foundation', said excavation of rivers and canals next to localities beside the forest and putting up of fences around the forest is essential for saving the Sundarbans from fires.

An increased vigilance of forest rangers to deter criminals from hiding in the forest and taking swift action against dishonest employees of the forest department are also critical, he added.

Asked whether the recommendations were being considered for implementation, Mohammad Belayet Hossain, divisional forest officer of Sundarbans East, said the recommendations made by the committee are crucial for the forest and those would be implemented soon.

In order to stop accidental fire from bidi or cigarettes, they have been conducting fire safety awareness campaigns among locals. As recommended by the committee, they also submitted a project proposal to build watchtowers in the forest.

"The higher authorities have also been informed of the need to excavate rivers and canals in the Sundarbans. We will do it. We are also trying to put up fences around the Sundarbans, adjacent to localities," he also said.

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