BENGALURU : Karnataka forest department officials suspect that vandals have been reigniting the wildfire in the state’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park each time it has been extinguished since it first broke out on Friday night. Even on Monday morning, three new fires near a road within the park and their pattern suggested that it was most likely a deliberate act, a senior forest department official said.

“It is an act of vandalism, of revenge. Somebody would have done something wrong and been penalised by the range officers for it. They wait until February when they know the winds are high and the forest is extremely dry and then start the fire," said Punati Sridhar, principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) and head of forest forces, Karnataka.

Vandalism aside, the extreme heat, the crackling-dry forest and high speed winds are making it that much more difficult for the 500-strong team involved in firefighting efforts. As a result, the four-day-old wildfire in one of the most important tiger reserves in India is still raging. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park, along with the adjoining forest ranges of Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala, is home to the largest population of wild elephants, leopards and tigers in the country.

Karnataka chief minister H.D.Kumaraswamy on Monday said that the government was closely monitoring the situation and has even requested support from the Indian Air Force (IAF) to help douse the fire that has so far claimed at least 2,000 hectares.

The park is divided into 13 ranges. It was in the Kundakere range of the park that the fire originally began, but only 50 acres of that range were affected. Strong winds carried the flames over to the other side of the park to the Gopalaswamy Betta range, which was the worst affected. The entire Gopalaswamy Betta hill, the highest peak in Bandipur, was gutted and other smaller hillocks in the area also caught fire, destroying over half of that range and leaving behind a forest floor covered with a carpet of ash.

Officials say some smaller animal species and young animals across species may have been killed by the fire. But with a little rainfall the affected areas will naturally regenerate, the forest department said.

"All fire affected areas and possible water filling points for Bambi bucket operations were identified," the IAF said in a statement. Two MI-17 V5 choppers that have been deployed to help fire-fighters from both states flew 10 sorties spraying around 30,000 litres of water.

Conservationists, however, are sceptical and expect the destroyed areas will be overrun with only some species of flora or even by lantana – an invasive weed that is the single-largest natural challenge to conserving Karnataka’s forests.

“Apart from its impact on wildlife (forest fires) also destroy the valuable leaf litter accumulated on the forest floor, which acts as natural manure for trees and plants. They engulf and burn natural food sources of ungulates and that could possibly lead to higher crop raiding by animals due to shortage of natural fodder in the forests," said Sanjay Gubbi, wildlife conservationist and biologist.

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