Friday, December 16, 2011

Lion of India

Lion of India
By Adrian Burton
Source: Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, Volume 9 (6),
Ecological Society of America - Aug 1, 2011)
(Publish by permission of the editor)

"Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!" cried Dorothy in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1939 cinematic production of The Wizard of Oz. When I was a child, my mother took me to see a special release of that film, and I hated it. I did like the Scarecrow, although I doubted it was he who most needed a brain. Although Dorothy certainly wasn't in Kansas anymore, there really was only one place where lions and tigers and bears could possibly get her all at once, and that was India. And any fool could see she wasn't there!

No one has trouble associating tigers (Panthera tigris) with India, and the country has four types of bear: the Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), the brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), and the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). But it is also home to lions – Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica). Sadly, however, this subspecies has been reduced to a single population. Once king of beasts from the Balkans to Bihar, it now reigns supreme only in and around the Gir Forest in thestate of Gujarat, western India.

Although anecdotal records suggest that the number of Asiatic lions fell to below 20 in the early 1900s, there are some 400 individuals today – enough for lions to be regularly found outside the protected area of the Gir Forest. Yet they remain geographically compacted, and an epidemic or other catastrophe could easily wipe them out. The Wildlife Institute of India first raised such concerns back in the 1980s, but it was not until 1995 that the Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh was finally identified as the best place to establish a second population. It was to start with five to eight Gir animals, but then the bickering began.

With Indian Central Government blessing, Madhya Pradesh prepared to receive its lions, even physically relocating the residents of 24 villages within the sanctuary to make way for the transfer. But thus far Gujarat has refused to send even a single pair. Its reasons have ranged from possible lion–tiger conflict, to insufficient prey, to inadequate protection from poachers. Translocation proponents argue in response that the two types of cat would occupy different habitats, that prey animal numbers are sufficient, and that poaching can be counteracted. Indeed, many Indian observers suggest the real issues preventing translocation are state pride and tourism rupees. Without doubt, Gujarat can be proud of its lions, but wouldn't helping to ensure their continued existence by creating new colonies – making the state "Mother of India's Lions" – provide a source of even greater pride? If necessary, couldn't any lions translocated to another state remain "on loan" from Gujarat? And if income from tourism is an issue, couldn't the Indian Government compensate for deemed losses in state revenue? Couldn't Madhya Pradesh share any income generated with Gujarat, or simply introduce a moratorium on tourists visiting translocated lions?

The case for granting the lions a second home has been with the Indian Supreme Court for several years now. The National Board for Wildlife offered its much respected opinion on the matter over a year ago, at the Court's request, and spoke in favor of translocating some lions to Madhya Pradesh. But deliberations continue. Furthermore, Gujarat's major political parties remain antagonistic toward translocation plans, and with different parties in control of the state and the Indian Central Government, any chance of a quick political settlement seems remote. Might a solution for the lions come only after some epidemic or natural disaster has left none to protect?

"I am keen that there should be a second lion habitat but do not insist on habitat A or B", says Meena Venkataraman, an independent Asiatic lion reseacher. "I just wish for a well-planned and well-executed endeavor that will work for the lions. Whether or not they eventually go to Kuno Palpur", she adds, "the Gir protected area needs to expand. There must be more space for dispersal and the establishment of the growing lion population, and the Gujarat Forest Department is now planning the Greater Gir Conservation Area. The Barda Sanctuary [in Gujarat] is also being prepared to receive lions, but while [this is a move] in the right direction, it may only offer a short-term solution." Indeed, the Barda Sanctuary is likely within the range of lions wandering out of Gir and some commentators see the Barda project as just another attempt to prevent lions from leaving Gujarat.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard granted the Lion's request for courage by awarding him a medal and by demonstrating that he already was brave. He would have known, however, that the Lion of India's need could not be met with an old key and by showing him he already had another home in Gujarat's heart. Surely we know that too?

Adrian Burton
© The Ecological Society of America

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