The burnt remains of birds that could not fly, their nests with eggs and fledglings, and reptiles that were caught unawares in their holes, besides other animals that could not run away in time are all that is left in a four-hectare area of the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary where a fire broke out on Friday, allegedly triggered by sparking from a high-tension wire passing over the protected forest area. The possibility of human carelessness has not been ruled out.
Forest officials said that many birds, pythons, mangoose and rabbits that were trapped in the blaze died, though it is not possible to put a figure to it. Most of the deer, wild boar and neelgai, however, may have fled. The sanctuary, around 30 km from Agra, is home to roughly 1500 wild boars, 100 spotted deer, 100 neelgai, 700-800 porcupine. More than 15,000 migratory birds come here during winter months.
The Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, on the Delhi-Agra highway, spans an area of about 700 hectares. It also has the popular Keetham lake spread over 300 hectares. The sanctuary acts as a green buffer between the Mathura oil refinery and the Taj Mahal.
During summer, the Keetham lake becomes the favoured habitat of the comb duck, spot billed duck, lesser whistling teal; a variety of storks — painted, open bill, black-necked, woolly-necked herons — egrets, cormorants and the sarus crane.
It took the forest department and fire brigade more than five hours to douse the flames. According to officials, the fire started in the north-west part of the sanctuary near Keetham lake around 8.45 pm. By 2 am. officials added that there was some delay in battling the flames as fire brigade vehicles found it difficult to negotiate the narrow paths leading to the spot.
Anil Patel, deputy conservator of forest (National Chambal Sanctuary Project), blamed the overhead high-tension wires over the area for the inferno. “We have written several times to the electricity department to shift the cables, but to no avail. In summer, chances of sparks and fire incidents rise manifold,” he added.
Sources said more than 12 minor fire incidents have been reported over the past five years. Most of them are suspected to have been set off by high tension wire sparks.
Patel said, “The forest area has suffered a major loss. We have received a confirmed report of a python being burnt in the fire. There were birds’ nests and eggs laid in winter season. We are in the process of assessing the extent of damage.”
Range officer Awadh Bihari said, “Three teams have been formed and are taking turns to take stock of the situation. As soon as we received the information, forest staff rushed to the spot. Villagers too came and assisted us.”With the fire rapidly spreading, authorities became worried that it might pose a threat to the world’s largest bear rescue centre, two km from the spot the fire broke out in. At present 217 sloth bears are lodged at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, being run by Wildlife SOS.