Thursday, April 29, 2010

Local pride leaves India's lions at risk

Local pride leaves India's lions at risk
Times Online

It was a tawdry end for a beast whose ancestors tore Christians apart in Roman arenas, harried the armies of Alexander the Great, and spared Daniel in their Biblical den.

They found the lion crumpled on the banks of the Hiran River, its head crushed, mane matted in blood, and one front leg broken by the fatal fall from the bridge 60ft above.

The five-year-old male had been either hit by a car the night before or scared by one into jumping from the bridge.

"We closed our shops that day – no one did any business out of respect," said Nitin Ratangayra, 30, the manager of a roadside restaurant nearby.

"The lions are very important to us."

To lose an endangered animal like this would be a tragedy anywhere, but the loss here was all the more painful as this was an Asiatic lion – rarer even than the tiger, with just 359 left in the wild.

This lesser-known cousin of the African lion once roamed from the Danube to the Ganges, but today lives only around the 617 square mile Gir sanctuary in Gujarat.

So wildlife experts were appalled last month when Gujarat's Government revealed that 72 lions – 20 percent of the population – had died in the past two years, including the one under the bridge, and three which fell into wells.

Earlier this month, another lion was hacked to death by farmers.

Local officials say the death toll is normal, insisting a five-yearly census completed this week will show that enough cubs have been born to increase the overall population to 400.

But their announcement has inflamed a 15-year dispute – which the Supreme Court is due to rule on next month – over whether to move some lions to the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh.

On one side are the central and MP governments, backed by wildlife experts, who say the lions have outgrown Gir and could be wiped out by an epidemic unless they are split up.

On the other is Gujarat's Government, led by Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, who says the lions belong to his state, and would be worse off anywhere else.

"It's become an emotional and political issue, but the future of the Asiatic lion should not be decided by emotions or politics," said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

"This is one of the most important mammals on this planet, and it's our duty to do everything in our power to secure its future."

The issue is sensitive as the Asiatic lion adorns India's national emblem – based on a sculpture erected under Emperor Ashoka in 250BC – and was its national animal until it was replaced by the tiger in 1973.

It also inspired India's earliest conservation project, having been hunted almost to extinction by 1900, when there were estimated to be just 20 left.

That year, the Nawab of Junagadh invited Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, to a lion hunt in Gir, but cancelled it after a local newspaper protested that the animal was almost extinct.

"Fortunately I found out my mistake in time, and was able to adopt a restraint, which I hope that others will follow," Lord Curzon wrote in a letter to the Burma Game Preservation Association in 1901.

Soon afterwards, the Nawab banned lion-hunting. Indian conservationists took up the cause after independence in 1947, and Gir was declared a sanctuary in 1965.

As a result, the lion population has grown steadily from 177 in 1968, when the first scientific survey was done, to 359 at the last census in 2005.

In the early 1990s, however, Indian wildlife officials began to worry that Gir was too small.

Their concern intensified after an outbreak of canine distemper killed more than 1,000 lions in the Serengeti park in Tanzania in 1994.

"It's clearly a case of not keeping your eggs in one basket," said Ravi Chellam, who spearheaded the Wildlife Institute of India's search for a second sanctuary.

In 1995, the central government decided to move a handful of lions to the 133 square mile Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh by 2001.

It spent 150 million rupees (£2 million) relocating 1,500 families from Kuno and boosting its supply of deer and other prey.

Since the late 1990s, however, Gujarat has refused to give up any of its lions, which attract 100,000 visitors a year, generating millions of pounds for the local economy.

"Lions are the pride of Gujarat," Mr Modi declared in November.

A rising star in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he came to power in Gujarat in 2001, the year before deadly anti-Muslim riots broke out in the state.

So the impasse over the lions only deepened when the Congress Party – which had been fiercely critical of Mr Modi – defeated the BJP in a national election in 2004.

In 2008 the dispute finally reached the Supreme Court when a non-governmental organisation called the Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India filed a lawsuit to force Gujarat to co-operate.

"Public money is being wasted, conservation efforts are being frustrated and a species is being endangered," said Ritwick Dutta, a Supreme Court lawyer acting for the trust.

"If they can lose 72 in two years, then they can spare four or five for Kuno."

He said that the lions are at risk not just from disease but from poaching, citing a case in 2007 in which eight were killed and stripped of their bones.

Experts say the lions are also increasingly threatened by roads, electric fences, and an estimated 20,000 unprotected wells in the area.

"As the human population grows, there's only going to be more conflict with the lions, and greater risk of inbreeding," said Betsy Dresser, an American expert on endangered species who visited Gir in 2007.

Not so, argues Pradeep Khanna, Gujarat's Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Wildlife.

"I don't see any reason to move then," he said. "A death rate of 10 per cent a year is normal."

He added that the sanctuary had grown by 85 square miles since 1965, and been divided into four parts to avert an epidemic.

Local authorities had covered 13,500 unprotected wells since 2007, and added 100 guards to protect against poachers.

They would soon have enough genes from orphaned cubs taken into captivity to re-generate the entire population if necessary, he said.

Sandeep Kumar, the Deputy Conservator of Forests in Gir, estimates that 80 to 90 healthy cubs were born in the last two years alone.

"There are no symptoms of inbreeding," he said.

Gujarat's strongest argument against the plan, however, is that the central and Madhya Pradesh governments have yet to complete preparations at Kuno, and have dismal records on protecting the tiger.

India had 40,000 tigers a century ago, but that number had fallen to 1,411 in 2008, compared with 3,642 in 2002 – largely due to poaching.

Last year Madhya Pradesh admitted there were no tigers left in its Panna reserve.

This week India's Environment Ministry said it was phasing out tourism in and around tiger reserves because it had damaged their habitat so much.

"Do we want to sacrifice the lions too?" Mr Khanna said.

He said Gujarat would comply with the Supreme Court's ruling, but many wildlife experts fear the court will either delay the decision, or make an ambiguous ruling that will allow the state to stall for many more years.

"Court cases in India can be dragged on indefinitely," said Ms Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "I don't think either side is going to give up on this."

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