Monday, May 21, 2007

Gir is still cool for lions


Gir is still cool for lions

Times of India Ahmedabad Print Edition By: H S SINGH

The Times of India reported on May 17 that over 100 peacocks died at Morena in Madhya Pradesh in three days due to soaring heat. This compelled me to consider the probability of the survival of the Asiatic lion in the proposed alternative home in the same region with similar terrain and climate.

The lion evolved in a sub-tropical environment and survived in temperatures never exceeding 43 degrees Celsius even during the hottest years. The extreme climatic condition and its impact on the lion perhaps requires further review before deciding on rehabilitation.

In Africa, extreme summer temperatures don’t exceed 37 degrees Celsius in lion territory. Although in some areas, temperature goes beyond 43 degrees, in the Serengeti National Park temperature never exceeds 32 degrees Celsius.

Even in the Gir forest, summer temperatures often reach 40 degrees Celsius but rarely 43 degrees. Dense riverine vegetation of seven major rivers and their tributaries and evergreen trees like Manilkara hexandra and Ficus bengalinsis in Gir greatly influence local environment, reducing temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius.

During hot summer months, most lions retire in this riverine forest and riverbeds or under trees. This is perhaps one of the main reasons for lions adapting to Gir in contrast to the open Savannah of Africa.

One-and-a-half century ago, lions were prevalent in north-west India — north of the Narmada and southwest of the Ganga. A majority of the area was under forest cover, crisscrossed by several perennial rivers that had thick riverine vegetation. Thus lions enjoyed a mosaic of climatic conditions. Temperature in these patches never exceeded 42 degrees Celsius even during the hottest summers.

But over the last 150 years, the environment of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh has changed drastically. Majority of the hills in the Vindhya and the Aravallis are rocky and rivers are not perennial, restricting the forests only in small patches. The environment of Palpur Kuno and other sites like Kummal Gadh, Sita Mata, Dara Jawaharlal Sagar area are now very hot. In 2005, summer temperatures exceeded 50 degrees Celsius for the first time in Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Even tall trees died, leaving only those plants which could tolerate the extreme climate.

In Palpur Kuno, temperature varies from two degrees Celsius in extreme winter to 49 degrees Celsius in extreme heat. Whether the lion can survive in such temperature is a matter of intense debate. Rocky hills, degraded forests and increased levels of green house gases will further aggravate the situation. Experts should critically examine these elements before undertaking any experiment.

The author is Gujarat Chief Conservator of Forests, (Research).

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