12 Mar 2023  |   07:03am IST


A major fire outbreak at the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is wreaking havoc as it has spread rapidly and destroyed Goa’s biodiversity to a large extent. VITHALDAS HEGDE assesses the long-term impact of the charred forests, along with scars this fire will leave on the State’s fragile ecology and on minds of the people. Pics by Sagun Gawade

Since last week fires have occurred on the hillock located in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary destroying several acres of land. The fire has also damaged Chorla Ghat, Vagheri Hill, Keri and Charavane and Penda area in Sanvordem village in Valpoi constituency.

The Fire Department authorities are on the job and struggling to douse fire in vain. The authorities sought help from the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force (IAF) to bring the fire under control.

The fire has damaged cashew plantations of few villagers besides, medicinal plants such as Gracinia Indica (Bhinda) and Acacia Concinna (Shikakai) and age-old trees mostly at Satrem and Dedora areas. 

Environmentalists are of the firm opinion that fire is man-made as some are opposed to declare the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary Tiger Reserve, while there is also a long pending issue of Forest Settlement Rights. People tend to set forest area under fire so as to claim more land claiming that area which was destroyed in fire, was cultivated by them.   

To bring the reality of fires to its readers, Team Herald made a ground level visit to Satrem and adjacent Derode areas to capture every moment of fire and spoke 

to villagers.

According to the longest serving Nagargao panchayat member Laxman Gawas, the fire first broke out near the Deepaji Rane fort last week. By the time it was doused, fire spread at other places on 

the hillock. 

“Four years ago, fire incident was reported on the hillock and it subsided itself and nobody rushed there to bring it under control,” he said, adding that now the fire had spread at several places making it difficult to put out the blaze due to strong winds. 

“Navy helicopters sprayed water over affected areas in the Sanctuary but still fire is raging,” he said.

Dhanu alias Babuso Gaonkar, a resident of Satrem said that this is for the first time that fire is occurring at different places and the local residents are unable to ascertain the cause of it. “We don’t know how fire is taking place at different places on the hills. I don’t think it is man-made fire.”  

Another villager Vishnu Gaonkar too ruled out the possibility of miscreants setting fire on the hillock. In the past, fires broke out on the hillock and it used to subside itself as nobody went there to extinguish it, he said adding, “Why will villagers set fire and what will they achieve. We all make our living on cashew plantations located on the hillock.”

Somnath Gaonkar, a retired employee recalled, “We used to climb the hillock and go to Parwad area in Karnataka for various works, till a road was built via Chorla Ghat. But we are puzzled over the fire breaking out on the hillock.”  

Environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar strongly believes that fire is man-made as the villagers are opposed to the Tiger Reserve in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, which was notified in 1999. 

He said, “These fires cannot be accidental as they have occurred at various places on the hillock. After Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary was notified 24 years ago, the wildlife management plan was prepared and made ready, but for reasons best known to the authorities concerned, the same has not been implemented. Due to this, Central funds have remained unutilised for last 25 years.”

Environmentalist Dr Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation, who has been fighting relentlessly against mining mafia to protect State’s environment and ecology, too said that fires were man-made, which emerged in numerous patches, independent of each other in the Sanctuary. 

He has alleged that the villagers living on the boundaries of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary have been allowed to encroach upon the sanctuary lands and they have carried out plantations. If these villagers have a problem, then that should be settled by the government, he said.

Dr Alvares also recalled that after Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary was notified in 1999, several attempts were made to denotify it so much so that the current Minister for Forests Vishwajit Rane, who is against the survival of the Wildlife Sanctuary, filed a writ petition in the High Court of Bombay at Goa when he was an MLA, praying to denotify the Sanctuary.  

“But even after becoming the Forest Minister, Rane has not yet withdrawn his writ petition,” he said.

Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary Range Forest Officer Geerish Bailudkar, who is camping at Satrem and closely monitoring the fire-fighting operations, suspected it to be man-made fire as it was a ground fire, damaging cashew plantations spread in the Sanctuary area.

The Forest Department sought help from the Indian Navy to control the raging fire in dense forest of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary.  While the real reason is yet to be known, the authorities should conduct a swift investigation into the incident and if it is revealed that the inferno is man-made, then the perpetrators should identified at the earliest and secure a stern punishment from the court.


Iddhar Udhar