Prasad Nichenametla, Hindustan Times
"I promised villagers near Gir that lions would not be sent outside the state," Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi said last Sunday at a function to release the lion census, which brought happy tidings.
The Asiatic lion (panthera leo persica) population in the state, which the previous census in 2005 had estimated at 359, had grown to 411.
But that was where the good news ended.
"Lions are part of our heritage," Modi added, stubbornly sticking to his stand of not allowing 12 lions from Gujarat's Gir forest – its last natural habitat – to be relocated to Madhya Pradesh.
The Union environment ministry had planned a lion project in Madhya Pradesh's Kuno Palpur, 450 km north of Bhopal, but this is unlikely to materialise soon as the issue has become enmeshed with regional sentiments.
Subliminally, Modi has linked the issue with his political plank – of protecting "Gujarati asmita (pride)". Thus, a conservation issue has got politicised, and the plan to gradually bring the Asiatic lion out of the endangered list has been nipped in the bud.
Incidentally, both MP and Gujarat are ruled the same party – the BJP.
But the growing lion population has stretched the 1,412 sq. km Gir to its limits. Gir officials say Bruhad or Greater Gir can accommodate 500 animals, but according to wildlife conservationists, even the present population is too high.
With weaker and younger males driven out by stronger ones, several lions have strayed into coastal areas and close to towns such as Rajkot.
The 2010 census shows 74 lions have settled outside the protected area, creating concerns about man-lion conflicts.
"The Maldharis in Gir forests and adjacent villages have adapted to the lions' presence for centuries. But we cannot expect the same from villages or towns where it is proposed to shift them," says Kausik Banerjee, senior research fellow, WII.
"Gujarat says Kuno Palpur is close to Ranthambore (in Rajasthan), which has tigers, and, hence, the lions will be in danger. If that is the case, how did lions come to India and coexist with tigers?" asks Ravi Chellam, country director, Wildlife Conservation Society of India.
On the basis of Chellam's report, Kuno Palpur was finalised as the proposed second home for the lion.
"There is no scientific basis for not shifting a handful of lions out of the 411 that currently live in the wild," says Chellam, who was earlier with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun.
J.S. Chauhan, chief conservator of forests, Bhopal, in charge of the lion project in Kuno Palpur, adds: "If the sticking point is the brand 'Gujarat', let us call them 'Gujarat Gir lions' instead of 'Asiatic lions'. They may be in Madhya Pradesh but they will still be Gujarati lions."
Modi is unconvinced. He says: "At a time when the population of tigers is dwindling in the country, lions are growing in the state thanks to the ecology provided by the locals – the cowherd community called Maldharis. Gir is the best-protected sanctuary in the country, maybe even the world."
But experts aren't buying this line. "It is not for one individual to decide the fate of a species. Modi can be a champion of Gujarati asmita but by not allowing lions outside the state, he will become a champion of the extinction of a wonderful species," says Faiyaz Ahmed Khudsar, convener, Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India.
Based on a public interest petition from non-governmental organisations in 2005, the matter is now before the Supreme Court.
Senior forest officials and wild life experts in Gujarat agree in private that it is politics that is coming in the way of moving the lions.
"There is no harm in parting with a few lions. It's nothing but politics, which is not sparing even the wild animals in the country," a very senior official in Gujarat forest department tells Hindustan Times.
At the ground level, there is a business angle at work as well. Locals fear that Gir forest will lose its attraction as a tourist destination if its status as the last natural habitat of the Asiatic lion goes.
"Once that special tag is gone, who will care (about this place)? The sentiment to protect the lion will slowly fade in these local communities also," a forest officer says.
"Gujarat has done a good job but what we need is another living place for the animal far away from Gir -- like the past lion habitats in Madhya Pradesh or somewhere else," adds Divyabhanu Singh Chavda, member, National Wildlife Board, and president, board of trustees, World Wide Fund for Nature.
The arguments and counter-arguments flow back and forth. The king of Gir forest, meanwhile, remains caught in a web of politics.
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