Are lions Gujarat's immoveable property?
Times of India By Amit Bhattacharya
The revelation that 72 lions have died in Gir in the past two years brings back the vexed question: who owns the Asiatic lions of Gujarat, the only place in the world where the subspecies is found in the wild?
The Modi government's answer is clear. The lions are Gujarat's pride and they wouldn't let even a few of these majestic creatures be resettled in any other place. In other words, the state government seems to be saying, these lions are the immoveable property of Gujarat – so, by definition, they can't be moved out.
To any person who has some sense of attachment with the natural world, this is a deeply troubling argument. Can any government 'own' a forest and all beings living in it? For that matter, do I 'own' the pet dog who shares the house with me?
Apart from the ethical dilemmas raised by this feudalistic stand, the Gujarat government may be harming the very lions it prides on. Most wildlife experts say there's a dangerous overcrowding of these big cats in Gir. The present Gir lion population of around 360 has very low genetic diversity because they have all descended from a handful of lions left at the turn of the last century (estimates of these original survivors vary from 13 to 100).
These factors make the Gir felines vulnerable to disease. In the recent past, epidemics among wild African lions are known to have significantly reduced their numbers. In 1993, for instance, a canine distemper virus spread among a study group of 250 lions in the famous wild plains of Serengeti in Tanzania and killed one-third of them. The Gir lions would, in all probability, be more susceptible if such an epidemic were to hit the area. Then there's the threat of natural disasters and manmade calamities.
In short, keeping all Asiatic lions in one basket (as it were) isn't a good idea. Which is why the Wildlife Institute of India in the 1990s the mooted relocation of some Gir lions – just 8-10 of them – to start a new line at the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh.
Spread across 344.686 sq km, Kuno was identified as the best potential site for reintroduction of lions. It lies in north MP, an area that was once a heartland of lions. Over the years, the habitat has been strengthened, the prey base developed and villagers relocated to make the place fit to receive its maned residents. The government, in a statement in the Lok Sabha, said it had sanctioned and released Rs 15.45 crore by 2007-08 for relocation and rehabilitation of families from 24 revenue villages in Kuno wildlife sanctuary. Expert teams have visited the area and reported that it is ready for lions.
But the Modi government remains unmoved. In the Supreme Court last month, it put forth a number of arguments, including "irreparable damage to the sociology of lions", to assert that Gujarat's lions weren't going anywhere. The state government's counsel added that any attempt to translocate the animals to the Kuna reserve "against the will of the people of Gujarat will cause irreparable damage to their conservation and cultural ethos".
By all accounts, 72 lion deaths in two years in Gir isn't an alarming figure. Experts say it's within the 10% death rate that is naturally expected in a population. Most of them praise the Gujarat government for doing an admirable job in conserving and strengthening the lion numbers in Gir.
Without doubt, Gujarat has cared for its lions. Another reason why the Modi government should look beyond the tourist revenues from Gir and start thinking about the long term health of its regal, yet fragile, animals.
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