Sunday, March 11, 2007

Warning for the King (Asiatic Lion)

By Hiral Dave

Indian Express Net Edition, Dt. March 10, 2007


To see the Asiatic Lion in its den you have to register at the Gir Forest National Park. But a hundred rupee note can ease your passage into the home of the tawny cats. At Babra Vidi, a protected forest area located 30 km from Sasan (the sanctuary headqarters), the locals will happily palm the currency note and play guide, even guaranteeing a lion sighting. There are no formalities, no check post, no regulations, no restrictions.


The show at Babra Vidi with its nine lions, say the locals, has been going on since two years. “A pride of lion has been living here for couple of years. We feed them so we know where they can be located,” says local guide Razaq (name changed), as he takes the Sunday Express team around Babra Vidi, just three days after two lioness and a cub were hunted down on March 3 in the Barbaria range. They offer to rent vehicles at Rs 700 for a three-hour ride.

On top of a hill at Babra Vidi, there’s a Forest Department check-post. But no one stops anybody. The local operators know that. It has been this way for years now.


Babra Vidi is also approachable from Gadu near Veraval. The tourists coming from Somnath temple can directly come to Babra, even without passing through Junagadh or Sasan. These holes in the sanctuary perimeter may explain how the endangered animal could have been killed in its backyard.


The GIR national park is spread over 1,400 sq km and there are many ways to enter it. The carcasses of the lions were found on March 3 near the Babaria-Una highway. The Babaria-Una road is only one of the total seven state highways that run through the park. A 15-km long meter-gauge railway track too ribbons through the sanctuary. About two lakh tourists, apart from locals, travel on these roads every year to pilgrim spots like Kankia and Tulsishyam.

Additional Principal Conservator of Forest Pradeep Khann admits there are problems. “The incident of poaching does indicate security lapses. But our immediate concern is to focus on investigation of the killings,” says Khanna, adding, “It’s time to review many aspects and strength protection as the department too has many limitations like staff shortage.” At present, the Forest Department has 300 guards, each of whom is responsible for keeping vigil in a 12-km area.


Poaching, unlike in the country’s tiger preserves, however, is not a regular occurrence at the Gir Forest National Park, which was set up in 1965. According to the Forest Department this is the first incident of poaching where the involvement of international gangs is suspected. In the past lion killings have been determined to be largely retaliatory killings by villagers.


Asiatic lions were once found in Rajasathan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. It was in 1911 that the Nawab of Junagadh, on the advice of British Viceroy Lord Curzon, initiated efforts for the conservation of the Panthera leo persica. At that point there were only 20 lions left in Gir. Since 1913 their numbers have grown steadily. The 2005 census has put the population of lions in Gir at 359.


But the poaching this month has pushed this question into the forefront: is it wise to have only one home for the lion? If earlier the magnificent cats were hunted down by Maharajas for sport, now shrinking forests, increased human presence, blind wells and electrified fences are taking a toll on the lions in Gir.


“According to our reports, around 25 big cats die every year after they fall into wells or get trapped in fences,” says Conservator of Forest Bharat Pathak. Since January 2007, three lions have drowned in a well. Last year a carcass of a lion was found at Kamleshwar dam with its legs tied. In 2005, there was a poaching case in which three men poisoned two lions.


But the real danger comes from wells. There are as many as 1,000 of them, at least 15 ft wide and equally deep in the vicinity of Gir. About 600 well are located at nesses (localities of Maldharis or cattle owners), of which there are 54 with 350 Maldhari families with the sanctuary.


With the Gir Sanctuary reaching its carrying capacity, about 20 lions in recent times have strayed out on to the coastal belt that stretches from Porbandar to Sutrapada and have made it their home. Yet the plan to find them a new home in Madhya Pradesh has still not been realised.


Line of Attack

August 2005: Carcasses of two lions were found in Dalkhania village. Investigations found that both lions were poisoned. Their claws were missing but were later dug up from near a temple. The Forest Department arrested three people

January 2007: The carcass of a lion that was electrocuted was found in a cotton field. A case was registered against the farmer who had illegally wired the area to draw power. The incident occurred at Charnyawadi area near Simar village, which falls under Jashadhar forest range in Dhari division of Gir forest

February 2007: Two cubs fell into a well in the Dalkhania range and drowned. Preliminary reports revealed they were chased by locals. Investigation is on

November 2006: A lion was found dead at Kamleshwar Dam near Dhari. The lion’s legs were tied with a wire

2003: Two lions died in Gir after they were brought back from Barda in Porbandar district. They had strayed and reached Porbandar through the coastal belt.



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