Wildfires result in loss of forests and pollution, but what about wildlifeNepal, which lacks a clear policy to deal with forest fires, has no mechanism to monitor how wild animals are dying and losing their habitats from fires, officials say.
Last year, when Australia witnessed megafires, what scientists called one of the worst wildfires in modern history, the cost of the disaster amounted to billions of dollars. Initial estimates put the costs at around $100 billion, making the bushfire Australia’s costliest natural disaster ever.
The forest fire, which raged for months, killed at least three dozen people, while more than 445 more deaths were linked to smoke from the massive bushfires. Besides, the bushfire also burned down millions of hectares of forests.
Another irreplaceable loss was that of wild animals.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, nearly 3 billion animals were harmed—either killed or displaced—in the bushfire that raged across Australia from June 2019 to February 2020. The global conservation body estimated that 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs were affected.
Thousands of kilometres away from Australia, Nepal is also witnessing one of the worst wildfires in its recorded history.
“The forest fire which has come down with a brief rainfall nearly two weeks ago once again picked up in the following week,” said Sundar Prasad Sharma, an expert on forest fires and an under secretary with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority. “There are still around 200-300 forest fires breaking out every day on average.”
And the fires are not concentrated in any geographical area but burning across the country—from the east to the west.
This year so far the country has recorded 5,626 forest fire incidents in all of the country’s 77 districts, according to the government’s Forest Detection and Monitoring System.
Over 3,000 forest fires have been recorded in the 15 days of April alone.
While the pollution caused by the forest fires and the loss of forest cover has been highlighted, not enough attention is being paid to the extent of wildlife affected.
Incidentally, the country celebrates National Wildlife Week in the first week of Baisakh or the third week of April.
“Wildlife is definitely affected due to forest fires,” said Haribhadra Acharya, who is an ecologist with the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation. “Although we don’t have records of megafauna killed in forest fire incidents, they have killed birds, crawling species like lizards and other reptiles in Nepal in the past. Such wildlife are most affected in forest fires.”
“Forest fire does negatively affect flora and fauna. The massive forest fire can even alter wildlife habitats and the ecosystem, making it dry allowing the growth of invasive species,” said Acharya.
Like in Australia, where millions of species died in the devastating wildfires, wild animals could have been charred down in Nepal too.
According to Acharya, who is also the spokesperson with the Department, although no megafauna like tigers, rhinos and elephants have been reported killed due to forest fires in recent years, he doesn’t deny that no such animals could have been killed in the ongoing fire incidents.
As the country’s forests have continued to burn across the country for several months now—with the forest fire season beginning in November and running up to the onset of monsoon—no one knows the scale of devastation from loss of forest cover to animals that dwell in forests.
“We do not have any data on loss of forest cover. We are planning to have such a system that can generate data on loss of forests at least from the next year,” said Sharma. “Besides, we also do not have any estimates on loss of wildlife due to wildfires which can even push species on the brink of extinction. The Australian bushfire was an extraordinary event of history and extreme wildfire incidents, killing millions of species, wild animals have definitely died in Nepal’s forest fires too.”
Forest fires in the past have resulted in the loss of wildlife.
In 2009, when the country witnessed the deadliest forest fire season till then, many endangered wild animals including red panda, musk deer were reportedly killed. Besides, more than 80 yaks were burnt to death in wildfires in Sankhuwasabha, which also engulfed hundreds of hectares of forestland, including the parts of Makalu Barun National Park.
Three years later, when wildfires had ravaged Bardiya National Park, an official had told the BBC that around 40 percent of small mammals, 60 percent of insects and a significant number of birds had been lost in the fire.
In 2016, monkeys, snakes, rabbits, porcupines, deer, wild boars and pheasants among others were killed in an inferno in far-western Nepal while many other animals had been displaced after their habitat was destroyed by the fire.
What further increases the possibility of wild animals dying from forest fires is the fact that a significant number of wildfires have been reported in the country’s protected areas, home to valuable wild animals.
The government data show that a total of 1,326 wildfire incidents have been recorded in the country’s protected areas so far this year.
“Wild animals must have died. But no agency has any data on the extent of loss of wildlife,” said Sharma. “We cannot talk about the scale of damage because such losses have not been quantified. Just because it is not quantified, it doesn’t mean they are not dying.”
But Acharya feels that the devastation to wildlife in Nepal is not to the extent that was seen in Australia.
“Our kind of forest fire is not crown fire which doesn’t let animals escape and the heat can be felt up to a farther distance,” said Acharya. “Our forest fire is ground fire, which can have comparatively fewer effects on wild animals.”
Crown fire is the kind of forest fire that spreads from treetop to treetop and is considered the most intense and dangerous wildland fires. This kind of fire burns trees up their entire length to the top. In contrast, surface fires or ground fires burn only surface litter, making it the easiest fires to put out and cause the least damage to the forests.
Authorities in Nepal do set controlled fires in the wildlife parks to clear grasslands to allow new grasses to grow.
“When fire lines are created in the forest, wild animals move from one block to another and remain safe,” said Acharya.
But what cannot be denied is that in Nepal, which loses nearly an estimated 200,000 hectares of forest area annually, forest fires have been one of the major challenges for biodiversity conservation.
But the extent of damage is not known.
“We don’t know what is the area of forest cover that has been burnt down due to forest fires,” said Prakash Lamsal, a spokesperson with the Forest Ministry. “So far, we only know the frequency of forest fire from a government monitoring system.”
Like other experts and officials, he also did not downplay the impact of forest fires on wild species. But, he also does not have any information on the loss of wildlife or forest due to the wildfire.
“When there is fire in the jungle, it causes immense damage to plants and animals,” said Lamsal. “However, we do not have any assessment of such damage.”
The lack of data on the loss of green cover and wildlife inside the forest once again reflects the lack of clear policies in handling forest fires in the country and that the country is ill-prepared to fight against the recurring wildfires, a major environmental threat for the country.
Experts agree on the need for an institutional mechanism to monitor the extent of devastation that wildfires cause every year.
“There is no data on the burning of forest cover or wild animals killed because no one has taken responsibility for keeping such data,” said Sharma. “If only there were an institutional setup, it could have made the job easier for all of us. Either the Forest Ministry, the department of national park wildlife or the forest department should have such statistics. But no one has such information. All I can give is a guarantee that wild animals have died but no evidence.”
Acharya, the government ecologist, agrees that the country needs to conduct an assessment on the loss of forest and wildlife.
“There should be some studies on the impact of forest fires on wild animals in the country. There has been some discussion on this regard too,” said Acharya. “However, as of now, we do not have any such assessment on the death of wildlife due to wildfires.”