Monday, May 17, 2010

Move the lions

Move the lions
Business Standard

Should Asiatic lions remain confined to their last natural habitat in Gir (in Gujarat) or should their roar also be heard in other parts of the country where they roamed till about 150 years ago? The short answer is that it makes sense to create a lion population in at least one other place, especially when the Gir sanctuary is now said to have too many lions. Indeed, way back in 1979, the government had acted on the advice of wildlife conservationists and decided to shift some prides of Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) from Gir to a new sanctuary at Kuno Palpur, in adjoining Madhya Pradesh, so as to provide a second homestead to this majestic species of endangered big cats. The problem is that the Gujarat government is not inclined to part with any of its lions. As a result, the Kuno lion sanctuary, developed at a cost of over Rs 34 crore after moving out over 1,500 families living there, is still devoid of lions.

Gujarat has reason to be possessive about its lions. Apart from enjoying the distinction of being the only state where lions still exist, Gujarat also has a better record when it comes to the safe upkeep of big cats. Other states have been finding it difficult to protect equally endangered tigers despite liberal Central assistance. Tiger reserves like Sariska (in Rajasthan) and Panna (in Madhya Pradesh) lost their entire tiger population in the last few years. In healthy contrast, there has been a steady rise in the size of the lion population in Gir. According to the 2010 lion census, there are now 411 lions, against 359 in 2005. The less convincing argument, from the perspective of the lions at least, is the commercial one, that Gujarat would lose the tag of exclusivity when it comes to lions, and this would affect wildlife tourism in the state.

Perhaps, but any such impact would be marginal. And the far more important issue is the need to create healthy lion populations in more than one place. That explains why the majority of wildlife experts and conservationists feel that these arguments are not strong enough to stand in the way of a few lions being shifted out of the Gir forests. Among other things, while the overall count of Gir lions is looking up, the number of unnatural deaths of these big cats is also on the rise. Several lions have been forced in recent years to venture out into areas on the periphery of the Gir sanctuary, and moved closer to villages and towns where they come into conflict with humans. The 2010 census is reported to have indicated that more than 70 lions have settled outside the protected area. This is being viewed as a sign of overcrowding in the Gir national park. Another argument in support of the lions' relocation is that it is not good strategy to keep the entire last surviving population of an endangered species at one place. Any natural disaster, or even a disease or genetic deformity, can annihilate the entire lion population.

Those in favour of relocating some of the lions have argued over the years that this does not amount to tampering with their natural way of life. This now stands vindicated because of the successful rehabilitation of tigers in Panna national park in Madhya Pradesh, which had earlier got depleted of its entire tiger population. Three healthy tiger cubs were spotted there recently after the introduction of a tigress from Bandhavgarh in Karnataka, and a tiger from another sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh itself. What these carnivorous big cats really need for their settlement is the abundance of prey and a healthy eco-system with plenty of vegetation to support herbivore population. If the Kuno Park meets these norms, the acclimatisation of relocated lions to their new abode should not be a problem.

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