Thursday, May 10, 2007

Don't move, die here


Tehelka Weekly


As the only home in the wild for the Asiatic lion, Gir faces the problem of inbreeding. One epidemic can wipe out all the cats


The Gir National Park and Sanctuary is spread over an area of 1,412 sq km, and hangs on the southern tip of western India’s Kathiawar peninsula. The Nawab of Junagarh at the turn of the 19th century decided to save the 18 lions left in the wild, and over a century the number has grown to 350. But the genetic pool of the present population remains small. The risk of a contagious disease is very real. Inbreeding leaves the cats with a weaker immune system and makes them susceptible to epidemics. In 1994 Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park lost 1,000 lions to a mysterious epidemic called Canine Distemper. It was later found that dogs and hyenas were responsible for the infection.


Chief Minister Narendra Modi calls the lions the pride of Gujarat and won’t let them be shifted 

That incident was a wake up call. A year later, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, suggested creation of another viable population in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Since then, the forest dwellers in Kuno have been relocated out of the sanctuary to create a viable lion habitat.


But Chief Minister Narendra Modi calls lions the pride of Gujarat. “To be honest to you, I don’t agree with the government’s position,” says a top forest official who does not want to be quoted. “I must confess it’s a political decision not to allow the lions to go out of Gujarat.”


The Forest department of Gujarat argues that the temperature in Kuno is too high; tigers and lions do not coexist; and that settlements there would be affected by the presence of lions. Wright disagrees: “Lions stray outside GNP to human settlements because it is packed inside. That would not be so in Kuno. Public awareness can be created. The whole debate is misplaced.”


The chief wildlife warden of Gujarat, Pradeep Khanna, says it is not. “Who says we are against relocation? Lions are themselves relocating to areas they deem fit. Several prides of lions have moved out of Gir. We plan to declare these places as protected areas. We have already started doing so. To start with, we have already declared an area of 18 sq km as protected. The whole Kathiawar peninsula offers excellent habitat to lions. So why disturb them?”


And so the deadlock over shifting the lions to another habitat to create more than one viable population continues.

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