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The rolling ashes from Dzukou hills write back

Dzukou valley’s forest fire that raged on for two weeks has been a wake up call for the fire prone region that straddles Nagaland and Manipur

Smoke rises during a forest fire that broke out in the Dzukou Valley of Kohima district.
Smoke rises during a forest fire that broke out in the Dzukou Valley of Kohima district. (PTI)

The recent Dzukou valley fire, which was doused after two weeks, has raised an alert for several groups of people – local inhabitants, tourists, stakeholders, environmentalists and more. The 80-90 sq km (around 20,000 acres) valley, which lies in the border region of Nagaland and Manipur, has been susceptible to forest fire since the early 2000s, and this time, since December 29, when the fire was reportedly seen, 200 acres alone were reduced to ashes.

Located at an altitude of 2452 m above sea level, behind Nagaland’s Japfu Peak in northeast India, its biodiverse and rich landscape has been in the media headlines quite often for tourism and allied adventures like trekking. Dzukou means the ‘valley of cold water’ in the Mao language. The Angamis (an ethnic Naga group) call it the ‘silent valley’, the Meiteis (an ethnic Manipuri group) call it the ‘valley of flowers’. It is home to the rare pink lily Lilium mackliniae.

As large-scale fires recur over the years, the greatest loss is that of endangered and vulnerable plant life, wildlife and newly discovered species of birds for whom the valley acts as a crucial habitat.

With the current fire, as the accurate reason remains unconfirmed, the valley is now under assessment by teams of forest and state officials and researchers. While head officials of NSDMA (Nagaland State Disaster Management Authority) like Johnny Ruangmei have commented that the current fire has been caused by the dry season, there are few reports on how an increase in air temperature and precipitation levels could have caused it. DFO Nagaland Rajkumar IFS also stated in media reports at the time that the operations have to continue even though fire has been under control. There is also a possibility that it is a human-caused fire, spread due to carelessness and ignorance about the valley. Something as small as partially lit cigarette butt-ends can also trigger fires to become large-scale disasters here.

According to The Forest Survey of India 2019, nearly 4% of the country’s forest cover is extremely prone to fire whereas 6% of forest cover is found to be highly prone. Central parts of India and the northeastern region including Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur have been found to be extremely fire-prone in a 2019 study called Identification of fire prone forest areas based on GIS analysis of archived forest fire points in the last thirteen years.

The vulnerability of flora and fauna

The valley is famous for its rare flora and fauna species, like the Dzukou lily, many Rhododendron species (Rhododendron arboreum. R. elliotii, R. johnstoneanum, R. macabeanum, R. wattii), the asian-golden cat, Hollock gibbon and Blythe’s tragopan and threatened medicinal plants like Aconitum nagaram. It is also home to endangered animals such as Dzukou Valley horned frog (Megophrys dzukou), leopard, clouded leopard, Asiatic black bear, capped langur, stump-tailed macaque and serow.

Apart from the substantial loss of old-growth forest patches and biodiversity, frequent wildfires are also changing the forest structure and composition of the valley over the years. The Dzukou valley is dominated by dwarf bamboo, the height of which is on average 6-8 feet and it is usually this grassland region that has caught the fire.

The valley is famous for its rare flora and fauna species, like the Asian golden cat.
The valley is famous for its rare flora and fauna species, like the Asian golden cat. (Wikimedia Commons/Karen Stout)

Joli Rumi Borah, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia tells Mongabay-India, “The dwarf bamboo species called Sinarundinaria rolloana is one of the first plant species that rapidly colonises the burnt areas following a fire. It competes for nutrients and forms dense thickets suppressing the regeneration of any other species. These bamboo shrubs are really dry and prone to fire, thus forming a self-perpetuating fire-dwarf bamboo cycle.” In this way, small-scale fires in fact aid in the regeneration of the dwarf bamboo.

Forest officials have stated that with the active fire suppression by hundreds of government and non-governmental personnel, fire could be prevented from going towards western Dzukou area which is the primary habitat of Blythe’s tragopan, a pheasant classified as Vulnerable. Presently, no harm has been done to its habitat. Angulie Meyase, who is a wildlife conservationist and a birder since 2005, tells Mongabay-India, “Species at high risk are snakes (mountain pit viper, Jerdon’s pit viper, etc) and also some small mammals like moles, rats, etc. As for Blyth’s Tragopan, there is very little habitat danger because it prefers forested rocky habitats instead of bamboo and the fire-ravaged areas cover mostly bamboo areas.”He also added that Nagaland is yet to come up with strong environmental NGOs. “It is the forest department, disaster management department, and the state police force which contributes to controlling the fire. Local tourism organisations and tour operators are now coming up with a certain code of conduct after the recent fire,” he says.

Environmentalist Anwaruddin Choudhury who has formerly commented on the manmade inducement of fires in the valley in the past, informs Mongabay-India that the forest fires do not typically affect the tragopans because tragopans are the birds of forested lands. “They do not inhabit the grassy, bamboo dwarf plants that look like a carpet in the Dzukou valley. Though there are other reasons that make these birds vulnerable and worst affected due to environmental crises.” Choudhury has in his 2003 Forktail (journal of ornithology) account Some additions to the birds of Nagaland, Northeast India mentioned about “logging, jhum (shifting) cultivation and poaching for food and local trade” being the main conservation issues in Nagaland. Due to these interrelated issues, the ecosystem of Dzukou is a contested region for the local tribal communities as well.

Kenei Miachio, IFS conservator forest and climate change, Nagaland, states that working with the Sangami Youth Association helped in controlling the current fire outbreak. Local communities who own the land should always be taken on board for any successful conservation effort, he recommends. “As a department, we have been able to closely work with the local communities to bring their private lands under conservation both formally and informally. For example, the people of Kigwema village have declared a Biodiversity Conservation Area in a forest in their jurisdiction area. Similarly, Khonoma Village has declared Khonoma nature conservation and tragopan sanctuary in their private land of about 20 sq kms. Government has also notified Puliebadze wildlife sanctuary.”

Eco-sensitive tourism

In this grave hour, Dzukou valley fire raises a number of biodiversity issues and many of them have tourism at its problematic centre. Researchers, tourist organisations, scientists, government agencies and other stakeholders need to interact rigorously with environmentalists in order to formulate an effective strategy for ecotourism. “Too much of interference of tourists to camp in the valley without ecological knowledge is a risky point”, says Lourembam Biswajeet Meitei, who is the managing trustee, People of Animals Manipur. Recently, their volunteers have come across empty burnt nests, hollow bark nests but not any animal carcasses so far. “It could be possible that the wild species of birds and animals might have fled from Dzukou and Mount Iso when the fire began initially at a slow pace from the Nagaland side of the border”, he says.“The dry leaves of Arundinaria rolloana Gamble like dried algae and sponge-like small roots of Arundinaria rolloana Gamble are enabling the wildfire to burn more along with heavy winds.”

High tourist influx to Dzukou valley doesn’t necessarily mean tourists are prejudice-free. In fact the new millennial trends of “oriental” retreats seek to corporatise these environmentally vulnerable locations even during periods when the area might require space to recover and heal. Richard Kamei, a doctoral candidate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, comments, “In the imagination for “holiday”, tourists tend to look at places of interest from their worldview thus treating people, culture, custom etc. as a form of service and its providers as deemed fit their imagination. In such a scenario, economic well being is promoted at the cost of indigenous people’s interest and concerns, leading to creation of inequality within the community posing risk and threat to themselves and the ecosystem.” A possible middle ground between communities on either side of the border, has to “get down to British colonial policy of drawing and demarcating the boundary, by examining its intricacies like whether consent and participation of locals were involved or not. This basis can give clarity to such vexed questions in present days,” said Kamei.

This story first appeared on Mongabay.

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