Saturday, May 05, 2007

Asiatic Lion News 1st to 4th May 2007


Some lions should be shifted to MP

Times of India By Nayan Dave


RAJKOT: To add to the ongoing debate on a fresh abode for the threatened lot of Asiatic lions, Divyabhanusinh Chavda, India president of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that a few pairs of lions should be immediately shifted to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.


A member of Cat Specialist Group, a Species Survival Commission set up by World Conservation Union, earlier known as International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), Chavda says, the obvious solution is to create another home for the Asiatic lion before it is too late, at a distance from its present location.


Gujarat had the unique honour of housing four large cats: cheetah, tiger, leopard and lion. In the wake of poaching incidents knee-jerk reactions are not enough and will not deliver the desired results, he says.


Author of Hunting Leopard— Cheetah, "End of trail, the Cheetah in India", published by Oxford University Press and The Story of Asia's Lions published by MARG, Chavda says, "At the outset, the forest department's field staff must be strengthened by filling up positions lying vacant for several years for better patrolling.


They must have the permission to use their weapon against poachers and illegal entrants. The Assam government did this at Kaziranga National Park to protect the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. From a dozen rhinos a hundred years ago, the count has increased to 1,800 lions now."


He says shifting few pairs of lions to Madhya Pradesh is also necessary keeping in mind the possibility of an epidemic in Gir, the main reason behind the big cat's extinction in Tanzania.


"Lions started dying large numbers in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania spread across in 8,000 sq km. The bloodsucking fly menace led to the deaths of 90 out of 100 lions within a few months in 1962. In another such incident in 1993, Serengeti Plains in North-East Tanzania, spread over 18,200 sq km, saw the death of about 1,000 big cats out of 4,000 as a result of a teak fever epidemic in a year," he says.


"If an epidemic spreads in Gir forest, it would be difficult to save the rare species of Asiatic lions as the Gir forest is only spread across 1,412 sq km," he adds.





Tehelka By: Mihir Srivastava


There is a new surge in demand for lion body parts in China. Gir has become a major supply post


In two separate incidents in March, remains of six poached lions were recovered from the Babariya range of the Gir National Park and Sanctuary (GNP), the only home in the wild of the Asiatic lion. Two more lion carcasses were found in early April, raising the toll to eight.


This is new for Gir. "It is for the first time the organised poaching network has targeted lions," says Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Gujarat with help from the WPSI is investigating the case. The investigation has unearthed clinching evidence of the involvement of the Katni gang of poachers from central India.


The Katni gang consists of hunting tribes, the Bahilyas in this particular case, who are made to travel far and wide for poaching operations by illegal wildlife traders in Delhi and the Fatehpur-Kanpur belt. This is not the first time the Bahilyas have come to Gir. In 2001, one such gang was apprehended, 10 men arrested, and iron traps and cage, skinning knife, and other hunting material confiscated from them. Two years later, in Chota Udaipur region in the vicinity of GNP, another gang was nabbed with four leopard skins in its possession. In both cases, the poachers were there not for lions but for leopards. "Since the winter of 2006 they are now specifically targeting lions," says an investigator in CID.


Apart from lion skulls, skin and other body parts, the recoveries made at the site of the killing included iron traps, kerosene stoves, utensils and skinning knives. This shows that the Bahilyas here followed their typical modus operandi of poaching tigers elsewhere in the country.


1936    First lion census conducted, estimated lion population: 287

1968    The number of lions drops to 177

1972    Gir lion sanctuary project initiated. 580 of the 845 Maldhari families living in the forest shifted

1995    The lion population crosses 300 mark


Fifteen women were among 17 Bahilya tribe members arrested at their camp on the dry riverbed of Machhundri inside the protected area, about 15 km from the site of the crime. The men had managed to escape. The investigation trail later led the CID to Bhavnagar railway station where some more arrests were made.


Wright calls it a break from the past, and sees it as the beginning of a new phase in poaching of wildcat in India that has the potential of wiping out the only Asiatic lion population in the world. "It is still too early to say that lion body parts are being passed on as that of tigers. But it is also true that the organised poachers are in communication with the traders in India and China, and there appears to be an increase in demand for lion parts in the Chinese mainland."


The information from China suggests that Wright's apprehension could be true. Unlike the tiger's skin, tiger bones can be crushed and made odourless and disguised as other types of bones. "In case of lions it is very unlikely that traders will be able to distinguish the difference," says Wright who visited the Chinese mainland last year to investigate the burgeoning market for India's poached wildlife.


Tiger bones are the most valuable ingredient in the age-old Chinese traditional medicine system and are believed to cure rheumatism and arthritis and increase life span. Tigers' eyeballs are used to treat epilepsy, their bile for convulsions, their whiskers for toothache and their penises make for a potent sexual tonic. With the modernisation and economic boom sweeping the Chinese mainland, belief in traditional medicine has actually gone up. More and more people are acquiring the financial means to afford traditional treatment.


This has skyrocketed the prices and demand. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) believes that at least one tiger is killed daily for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Now that tigers are hard to find, lions are being made effective substitutes. In all likelihood, lion bones fetch the same price as the tiger's as there is no visual difference.


To meet the demand China has a huge stockpile of dead and alive tigers and lions. Xiongsen located just outside the southern Chinese city of Guilin is the world's largest battery farm for rare animals. It holds 1,300 tigers — almost as many as the whole of India — and about 300 lions.


The big cats' carcasses are dumped in huge vats of rice wine and left to rot for up to nine years. The Chinese believe that the tiger's strength passes into the wine as its body decomposes. They are then sold in tiger-shaped bottles of bone-strengthening wine of about £60 each. Apart from the livestock, the farm has a stockpile of skeletons of 600 tigers, lions and other animals in 100 refrigerators in underground caverns because there is no space to put them all in alcohol. The stock is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.


But this does not seem to be sufficient. The soaring prices of tiger/lion bones and rapid increase in demand have become a powerful incentive to poach. The price is estimated to be between US$140-$370 per kilogram depending on the size of the bones. In Taiwan, a bowl of tiger penis soup (to boost virility) goes for $320, and a pair of eyes (to fight epilepsy and malaria) for $170. Powdered tiger humerus bone (for treating ulcers rheumatism and typhoid) brings up to $1,450 per pound in Seoul.


In 2005, the Xiongsen wine company received permission from the State Forestry Administration and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce to produce 4,00,000 bottles of "Bu Gu Jiu" — bone strengthening wine. The name sounds like the tiger bone wine "Hu Gu Jiu" and the packaging is suggestive of tiger contents, although the approved wildlife ingredients are of the African lion. The reported annual sale is about 2,00,000 bottles for profits that run into millions. Also, the restaurants here offer an extraordinary range of dishes: a plate of lion meat is served for 380 yuan.


A delegation of the Chinese government at last year's 54th meeting of the cities standing committee distributed a statement that said: "A law enforcement investigation was made immediately and the report arrived at the top wildlife authority in China on August 29 advising that only 16 legally obtained lion carcasses were found, and no tiger bone was used to produce wine." The statement went on to say that any association of the tiger with the wine was only a kind of advertisement, like the popular Tiger Beer brand in Thailand.


Statements from the forest department in Gujarat, though, are conflicting. Chief Wildlife Warden, Pradeep Khanna, agrees that the matter is serious. "There were more than average deaths last year, but I openly said I was not worried about it. But after the poaching of lions, I agree that there are reasons to worry. We knew the gravity of the situation. Within a couple of days we sought specialised help and the case was handed over to CID," he says. Khanna's boss, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, ML Sharma, believes that the Katni gang was not after lions. "They had come to poach leopard," he maintains.


Sharma also holds the Central government responsible for the lion killings. "The Central government has failed to check the rampant organised trade in animal parts and now Gir has to bear the consequences," he said. Wright does not agree. "That the Central government has not done enough to check wildlife crime in India is common knowledge. This does not mean that the State government sits back. There are many issues that the State government has to look into to ensure security. The local government has to equally share the blame."


The state's forest department staff is ageing with an average age over 45. No recruitment has been done at the lower levels for the past 20 years. As a result there is virtually no night patrolling, informs a former chief of the GNP. This has allowed a free run to poachers and illegal night safaris are the order of the day. While Sharma denied any knowledge of night safaris, Khanna acknowledged it.


On why forest officials were unaware of the presence of Bahliyas in GNP even after two months of their arrival, Khanna said there could be no justification for the lapse but justified it all the same. "They come here with agricultural labourers from other states who work in the sugarcane fields in the park's vicinity. We do not want to harass genuine labourers who travel from so far to work," he said.


Khanna's alibi finds no support from senior officials in his own department. "There is no difficulty in locating Bahilyas," says the former GNP chief. "They dress differently, they speak a different language and their looks are strikingly different from the locals. They stay in their secluded camps away from the rest of the labourers. If only the forest staff care to patrol half of the required hours, they would know about their presence."


The whole blame cannot be put on the outside gangs though. Investigations have found that certain local people extended help to the poachers, even though the local Maldhari tribe is known to have contributed in conservation efforts. But a senior forest official says the Maldharis have become very materialistic. "They had pure ghee in their houses not long ago. Now they even sell the milk meant for their children in the market," he says.


Local tribes like the Gujjars in Rajasthan and UP are known to have abetted poaching of tigers for money. "Lions are our lifeline. If they are not there, nothing will be there. Nobody will come to Gir," says Raju, a shopkeeper in Sasan, but adds in the same breath, "They say one lion is worth a lakh rupees, which means the poachers made six lakh rupees!" Locals in Gir know that poaching lions means big money.



On protect lion mission... Modi makes an unplanned visit to Gir

Ahmedabad Newsline


Junagadh, May 2: The Gir killings and the Centre's suggestion to shift some lions to Madhya Pradesh weighing heavily on his mind, Chief Minister Narendra Modi rushed from Junagadh, where he had come to take part in the Gujarat Day state-level celebrations, to Sasan Gir, the headquarters of Gir National Park and Sanctuary, on Wednesday morning. Following his last visit on April 6, this time too Modi's visit to Sasan was an unscheduled one.


Modi was in Sasan Gir for eight hours and chaired three separate meetings. A marathon meeting was held with officials in which State Forest Minister Mangubhai Patel, Urban Development Minister I K Jadeja, Principal Forest Secretary P N Roychaudhary, PCCFs, IGP (Junagadh range) Mohan Jha, Collectors and SPs of the Junagadh, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts, and other senior officers from police and forest officials were present.


In addition to this, two separate meetings were conducted with the sarpanch of some 27 villages in Gir area, representatives of about 40 NGOs and 30 eco clubs, noted environmentalist and wildlife experts at Sinh-Sadan forest guesthouse. It is learnt that the chief minister was worried about the safety of Gir lions and used the occasion to appeal for the launch of a "Gir Wildlife Friend Mission".


Modi received various suggestions regarding protection and conservation of lions. He said in his meetings that he would seriously consider the suggestions and that the State Government was serious about the poaching cases.


Modi also said that besides the Rs 40-crore Project Lion declared by his government last month, steps had been initiated to start a wildlife crime control cell in the state police department, fast track court and wildlife protection task force.



Ahmedabad Newline

Two months, 50 arrests, CID yet to let cat out of bag


Rajkot, May 2: It's been two months since the first poaching case in Gir hit the limelight. Over 50 arrests, including that of alleged kingpin Sarkaslal Singh, later, the question is whether the CID has made any headway in the poaching case.


Singh was arrested on April 26, four days before the deadline given to the police by the State Government, and while his five-day remand custody has ended, there is little the CID is willing to let out.


When contacted, IG CID (crime) Keshav Kumar, who is heading the investigation, refused to comment. "We will let you know when the time comes,'' said Kumar when asked about the development of the investigation


Meanwhile State Chief Minister Narendra Modi headed for Sasan on Wednesday to check out the status of the probe.


In the three poaching cases in the past two months, eight lions have been killed.


Around 50 people, mainly women residing in temporary colonies in Una and Palitana, sites nearer to poaching spots including Babariya range in Gir and Bhandaria village in Palitana taluka of Bhavnagar district, were arrested.


While Singh has admitted his involvement in the trade of hide and claws, he has all along maintained that he is not involved in the killing of lions in the Gir forest.


For the CID now, the direction of the case would depend on results of brain-mapping and narco-analysis tests on Singh.


A CID source also added that "the bones, hide and claws of the lions, which are vital evidences to prove the poaching case, have not yet been found".




Intelligence network to stop poachers

Times of India


SASAN/RAJKOT: The state government appears to have finally realised the importance of involving people staying in villages near Gir sanctuary to build up a strong intelligence network, in the wake of several incidents of lion poaching in the recent past.

The government has decided to organise mass contact campaign in the nearby villages.


The move, including a step taken by Chief Minister Narendra Modi to seek suggestions from NGOs engaged in wildlife and forest conservation, eco clubs and sarpanchs of villages bordering Gir sanctuary during his visit to Sasan on Wednesday, comes after the Centre on Monday raked up the issue of shifting lions to Madhya Pradesh. He held a closed door meeting with CID (crime) officials at Sasan.


Additional principal conservator of forest, Pradeep Khanna, said that the department will conduct a campaign to contact people in the nearby villages. He said that the department held a meeting with the leaders from the nesh, the villages of the periphery, volunteers from NGOs and some representatives of eco development committee.


Officials said that the government is going to identify individuals and nature clubs who would secretly work for the forest department and give regular information to the forest department about the suspicious movement in the Gir and nearby areas.


The Maldhari community present in the meeting made representations against shifting them out of Gir. The officials said that this was the major issue which the forest department was tackling as of late, this intelligence network has totally failed because of several reasons. One of the main reasons was the harassment of local people by forest department staff. This was highlighted in a memorandum given to Modi, who was a surprise face in the meeting.




Sarkashlal to be put through narco test

Times of India - Ahmedabad


AHMEDABAD: Sarkashlal Singh, the man accused of masterminding the poaching of Asiatic lions within Gir sanctuary, will be put through narco analysis soon.


This move is aimed at helping the yet-unsuccessful hunt for bones and flesh of lions poached by Sarkashlal and his gang of tribals from MP, said police sources.


"Sarkshlal has smuggled the bones out of Gir for illegal sale in the international market, centred in China. Forensic tests like narco analysis will help us know more from the mastermind," said police officials.


On Monday, after spending five days in police remand, Singh was produced before a court in Una and sent to judicial custody. During the hearing CID (Crime) officials sought the court's permission to subject Sarkashlal to a variety of forensic tests like brain fingerprinting and narco analysis.


On March 5, remains of three lions were found within the Gir. This incident was followed by two others -- one in Gir and the other in Bhavnagar -- taking the total number of lions killed by Sarkashlal and his tribal gang from MP to eight. 



Lion cub found dead

Times of India


RAJKOT: A lion cub was found dead in Mitiyana range of Amreli district on Tuesday morning even as a lioness in Gir was paralysed after it developed a fever.


Conservator of forest (wildlife) Bharat Pathak said the cub was killed in a fight among the wild cats. The lioness was found suffering from fever on Monday, he added. "The lioness has been taken to a veterinary hospital in Sasan town of Junagadh district for treatment," Pathak said.


The cub is the 18th Asiatic lion to have died in the sanctuary in the past four months.


Shifting lions to MP will be a mistake GUJARAT'S PRIDE

Times of India 2-5-07 By: G A PATEL


Gir lions provide us with probably the only success story of wildlife conservation in India. Due to the habitat shrinking and 'shikaar' in the past, lion population in Gir had come down to as low as 20 at one point. However, sincere conservation efforts, unparalleled in the world, resulted in a significant increase in lion population in the past 75 years.

   Today, there are 359 lions in the Gir Sanctuary and National Park and its surrounding forest areas. They are, in fact, gradually reclaiming lost territory in the surrounding forest areas. The Gir lions and people living in the sanctuary provide a much-needed example of the benefits of coexistence of wildlife and community to the world.

   Conservationists demanding translocation of lions are blindly supporting the statement that "all the eggs should not be in one basket." In case of any epidemic, the entire population of Asiatic lions will disappear. And they quote the example of African lions. Besides, recent incidents of poaching in Gir and Palitana have added fuel to the demand. Such issues cannot be taken lightly. However, we often fail to appreciate the fact that the situation of the Gir lion is different.

   Firstly, the much-talked about epidemic has never struck during known history. In fact, lion population is on the rise. There are 359 lions according to the 2005 census compared to 327 in 2001. The survival ratio, death rate and life span of the Asiatic lion is normal, rendering it a healthy and growing population.

   Secondly, all the lions in Gir are not in one contiguous landscape or habitat. There are at least four isolated populations at Girnar, Mitiyala, Palitana and the coastal areas of Kodinar. About a third of the total population is outside Gir. This clearly indicates that through a natural process of dispersion, the Asiatic lion is regaining its lost territories on its own. We need to facilitate and support this natural process.

   Thirdly, Gujarat has already initiated conserving such new lion territories naturally selected by the lions. We must seriously pursue such a programme in the vicinity of Gir to enlarge the Meta

   populations. Helping such natural expansion of the lion habitat is likely to give successful results rather than complete artificial translocation to a distant place - an approach which has already witnessed failure whenever attempted in the past. There have been two such attempts in the past with 100 per cent failure. The wisdom lies in learning from the failures and not ignoring them.

   The two unsuccessful attempts were made in the past. Gwalior state made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce African lions (with seven animals) in Sheonpur between Gwalior and Shivpuri that is close to the Kuno-Palpur site. Another unsuccessful attempt was made in 1956- 57 to introduce Asiatic lions from Gir in Chandraprabha Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh. Ironically, the second attempt of shifting Gir lions was also as per the recommendation of the Indian Wildlife Advisory Board which met at Sasan Gir in 1956. We need to seriously debate the issue so that we don't again lead the national wildlife advisory body into making a wrong decision!

   (The author is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife)


Master poacher an old hand

Times of India By: Sourav Mukherjee & Himanshu Kaushik | TNN

Ahmedabad: He is 50, no more than five-and-a-half-feet tall and slightly built. A pushover, you say?

Think again, he is the dreaded lion poacher of Gir sanctuary — Sarkashlal Singh, a native of Baijan village in Hosangabad district in Madhya Pradesh. CID officials have branded him the 'national mastermind' of the two poaching incidents in Gir and one at Bhavnagar. Eight Asiatic lions have been killed.

Sarkashlal was arrested for lion poaching by the CID (Crime) sleuths on April 25, just days prior to gala celebrations that the government has planned at Junagadh for Gujarat's foundation day.

"The master poacher, who is linked to the tiger poaching racket in Madhya Pradesh, had single-handedly coordinated the poaching of lions in Gir. He was connected to the infamous Sansarchand gang of MP's Sariska tiger reserve but was never arrested. Only his name figured during investigations," said a senior Junagadh police official.

And the poacher seems to know his job well, having dodged arrest for more than two decades now. Sarkashlal had not only got eight lions poached within the protected — supposedly secure — Gir sanctuary, he also got the lions' bones and flesh smuggled out of the sanctuary without the forest officials even raising an eyebrow.

Interestingly though, Sarkashlal has told the police that he was rarely present when poaching took place. "The lion was caught in metal traps and then bludgeoned and stabbed to death by tribal gangs. The dead cats would be skinned and boned by the tribals and only then would Sarkashlal step in. He took over from there and injected the lion claws, flesh and bones into the international market. In destinations like China, bones of each lion fetch more than Rs 50 lakh," said sources.

However, it is still not clear how Sarkashlal smuggled the bones and flesh of the lions, each weighing no less 150 kg.

For the killing, Sarkashlal hired tribals from Katni and Panna in MP who are experts in tiger poaching. He stationed them in Gujarat to make them familiar with the area. This meticulous yet simple planning ensured that when the gangs struck, the forest officials were caught napping.

"Sarkashlal commands fear and respect among the tribals who refused to divulge anything about the racket or the modus operandi for long. Close to 70 tribals from MP have been rounded up but they are such hardened criminals and fearful of Sarkashlal that a lot of grilling and forensic examination was required to corroborate facts," said CID officials.

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