They are the country’s pride

Gir_lioness_prerna bindra

Wednesday, 08 May 2013 | Prerna Singh Bindra | in Oped

Gujarat must show its largesse by happily allowing the translocation of some lions to a new habitat in the greater interest of the species. Lions do not ‘belong’ to any State; they are our national heritage, and we hold them in custody for the world

On April 15 the Supreme Court directed that the first batch of lions from Gujarat be shifted to Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in  Madhya Pradesh within six months. The judgement came not a moment too soon, given the dire need for a second viable population of wild Asiatic lions.

The Asiatic lion was all but extinct at the turn of the 19th century, with numbers plummeting by some estimates to about two dozen animals, restricted to the Kathiawar region of Gujarat. It was the Nawab of Jungadh who first extended protection, supported by Lord Curzon, a keen naturalist, who also had a hand in the protection of rhinos in Kaziranga. In independent India the Gujarat Government and its people must be credited for the fact that lions flourished with numbers exceeding over 400 today. The Indian Government (which laid a strong foundation when in 1948 the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru supported the preservation of the lion and strongly opposed its hunting) along with scientists, national and international conservation institutions, etc contributed significantly to its conservation. Of particular note is Gujarat’s handling of the poaching crisis which last hit Asiatic lions in between 2005 and 2006. With the force of the Government behind it, the case was fast-tracked, resolved and 20 poachers were convicted within 18 months, creating a precedent — and a model — in India’s wildlife crime history .

Gujarat must show its largesse by allowing the translocation of some lions to a new habitat in the greater interest of the species. Lions do not ‘belong’ to any State, they are our national heritage, and we hold them in custody for the world. Confining them to one pocket is inimical to its long term survival. It’s a classic case of putting all one’s eggs in a single basket with the risks attendant with that strategy. We run the risk of losing the only population of the lion in case of a natural calamity or an epidemic. It is known to happen, with an epidemic almost wiping out a small population of lions in Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania.

It must be noted that Gir’s lion population has saturated and is spilling out into areas which are not protected and have intense human use pressures, making them very vulnerable. Worryingly, mining dots the Gir landscape, and this includes Barda sanctuary, created to support a second gene pool for the lions — laying much forest land (outside of the ‘protected areas’) waste and hindering movement of the big cats.

Gujarat had consistently refused to part with ‘its’ lions and the issue  has unfortunately taken political overtones and become one of vanity — the pride of lions equated with Gujarati asmita or ‘pride’. In its plea to the Supreme Court, Gujarat admitted that the issue had gone “beyond scientific reasoning” as “the lion is part of the family and community of Gujaratis”, and so surely one could not go by the logic alone. Following the relocation order, Gujarat’s State Board for Wildlife decided to proceed with a “strong review petition” of the decision by the Supreme Court. Reason seems to have taken a backseat, with the tone almost bordering on the ludicrous.  Regional NGOs and media have joined in the agitation. An article in the Ahmedabad edition of a leading national daily goes on to explain that, “It is almost like a firing squad waiting out there in the lion’s new home in Madhya Pradesh” (a reference to the large number of gun licenses in the Sheopur district, where Palpur Kuno is located).

One would not, however, undermine Gujarat’s valid concerns about the security of the lions in Madhya Pradesh, where they say tigers are poached, and where a Panna was allowed to happen? Yes, Panna’s shame is a tragedy, even more so given that those who allowed such a tragedy to happen have not been held accountable. In the same vein, we must acknowledge that Panna is being gradually rebuilt, and also the tremendous effort and dedication of the staff in keeping the tigers secure. Similarly, in the same State, where there is Kanha, tigers have survived, indeed thrived, despite threats and even occasional lapses largely due to the consistent and focussed protection efforts over the years. It was also pointed out that the first attempt to relocate the lions had failed. In between 1957 and 1958 three lions were shifted to the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh following a decision of the Indian Board for Wildlife which felt it was inadvisable to confine the lion to a single habitat. Reports indicate that the lions settled down and bred, with their population reaching up to 11 before they vanished.

This, however, cannot be used as a yardstick for the current translocation plan. SS Negi, who was part of the Chandraprabha experiment explains that the sanctuary was too small, only about 40 square miles, and had heavy human use and grazing pressure. The animals were not monitored and were largely left to fend for themselves once they were brought to Chandraprabha (in a train!). It is most likely that these lions ranged out of the sanctuary limits, killed livestock and were probably killed in retaliation. More importantly, this exercise taught us some important lessons — the need for large area for the lions, intensive monitoring, stringent protection and constant vigilance.

The exercise of building a second population is fraught with uncertainties, as any move of such magnitude is bound to be. Our effort must be to ensure that the risk is minimised, that Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is best prepared — protection strengthened, availability of adequate prey base ensured, sufficient and motivated staff appointed. Support of the local people is crucial. Most importantly, both States — Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh — and the Centre must work together and show long-term commitment  to ensure that India’s lion pride flourishes. Gujarat’s commitment to the natal population must continue, the shift is an additional safeguard. We need strong political will, and the goodwill of the local people, and all other stake holders, if we are to succeed. It is critical that we do not place misplaced obstacles — as on the success of this rests the future of a critically endangered species.

(The writer is senior consultant, WCS India, and founder-director of ‘Bagh’. She is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife)

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