Conservation Threat of Increasing Fire Frequencies in the Western Ghats, India
Abstract: The acceleration of processes such as forest fragmentation and forest fires in landscapes under intense human pressures makes it imperative to quantify and understand the effects of these processes on the conservation of biodiversity in these landscapes. We combined information from remote-sensing imagery and ground maps of all fires in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (MWLS) in the Western Ghats of India over 14 years (1989–2002). These spatial data on fire occurrence were integrated with maps of vegetation types found in the MWLS to examine fire conditions in each. We calculated the average fire-return interval for each of the vegetation types individually and for the MWLS as a whole. Using vegetation data from the larger Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and the entire Western Ghats region, we conservatively estimated fire-frequency information for these larger regions. Because the MWLS does not contain tropical evergreen or montane forests, we were unable to estimate fire conditions in these forest types, which represent 31% of all Western Ghats vegetation cover. For the MWLS, all vegetation types had average fire-return intervals of <7 years, and the sanctuary as a whole had a fire-return interval of 3.3 years. Compared with a 13-year MWLS fire data set from 1909–1921, this represents a threefold increase in fire frequency over the last 80 years. We estimated average fire-return intervals of roughly 5 years for both the larger Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and the entire Western Ghats region. Given other recent reports, the estimated fire frequencies for the Western Ghats forests outside protected reserves are conservative. We conclude that the current fire regime of the Western Ghats poses a severe and persistent conservation threat to forests both within and outside protected reserves.