As the flames move fast, snaking quickly upwards in the treacherous terrain of Similipal national park and turning everything on the ground to smoky ash, the women are in hot pursuit. Throwing their dupattas over their shoulders, sweat dripping from their foreheads, they vigorously whack the flames with leafy branches to extinguish them. Nearby, a forest department official armed only with a leaf blower works to move the leaves fuelling the fire out of the way.
Finally, as the hills of Similipal, in the Indian state of Odisha, become too steep, the women fall back. “It’s very smoky and hot, but for the past two weeks, we have been helping put out the fires in any way we can,” says Sanjukta Basa, chair of local environmental NGO Sangram.
For more than a month, Similipal national park and tiger reserve has been burning, causing untold devastation to Asia’s second-largest biosphere reserve. Living in this fragile ecosystem are tigers, leopards, elephants, deer, wild boar, pangolins, antelopes, more than 200 species of birds and about 3,000 species of plants, including rare orchids and many that are used medicinally by the indigenous communities in the area, known as the Adivasis, who live in 1,200 villages in and around the reserve.
Basa heads up a group of 10 women who work to protect Similipal. In recent weeks they have become de facto firefighters as they have attempted to get the fires under control. But fighting forest fires here is no easy feat. The virtually impenetrable protected forests of Similipal stretch over 2,150 sq miles (5,570 sq km) and cover steep, treacherous terrain, meaning they are largely inaccessible, except on foot.
No fire engine can reach these parts, so officials from the state forest department and volunteers use what resources they have to hand – leaf blowers and branches. “It’s hard, sometimes the flames have been eight to 10ft high, so we had no hope,” says Basa.
These forest fires are caused by humans. They are started by poachers and a minority of the local indigenous tribes, who use flames for hunting and foraging purposes. This year’s fires have been the worst in Similipal’s history owing to a collision of circumstances many believe could have been avoided.
Vanoo Mitra Acharya, wildife activist and co-founder of Sangram, says in his 20 years working in Similipal he has “never seen fires like this”. He says the region’s changing climate, along with the widening communication gap and rampant mistrust between the government forest department and tribal communities, is to blame.
“We have not had rain for about five months, which is very unusual, so the leaves on the ground have been burning like paper,” says Acharya. “But also, the forest department have lost the trust of the tribal communities, who are usually the first to put out these fires. Unlike in previous years, these villages did not call to give warnings and they did not fight the fires.”
He adds: “This failure of communication and failure of the government to act properly and quickly when the fires first broke out is the reason Similipal is still burning.”
Since 11 February, more than 3,400 fires have been detected across all four divisions of the national park, including about 350 within the tiger reserve. While most have been extinguished, some continue to burn. The Odisha forest department was accused of being ill-prepared, and the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued warnings to tiger reserves across India to be alert and take preventive measures against similar fires.
Some have accused the Odisha state government of showing little interest in fighting the fires until a Save Similipal social media campaign began to gain momentum at the beginning of March. The government has stated that no large trees or tiger, elephant or human lives have been lost. However, environmentalists say the fires will set Similipal back decades and local NGO Antyodaya Chetana Mandal estimates the fires have affected nearly 25% of the flora and fauna of the national park.