Friday, March 23, 2012

Don’t bother Gir’s lion

Don't bother Gir's lion
The Pioneer By Anuradha Dutt

Shifting them out of Gujarat is a disastrous idea

In a piquant development, two BJP-ruled States are at loggerheads over the proposal to transfer some of Gujarat's lions to Madhya Pradesh's Kuno Palpur sanctuary. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whose personal involvement in lion conservation is well known, has again refused to grant Madhya Pradesh's request for Asiatic lions on the grounds that these rare species would not be safe there. And he has good reason for saying so, given that all of Madhya Pradesh's Panna National Park's tigers, estimated to be 27, had been poached, with the fact coming to light only by early 2009.

This crime occurred after the nationwide uproar over disappearance of Rajasthan's Sariska reserve's 25-28 tigers, which led to the upgradation of Project Tiger into a statutory body, called the National Tiger Conservation Authority, in September 2006, and setting up of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in June 2007.

The Kulo Palpur sanctuary, in addition to one more reserve in Madhya Pradesh and a third in Rajasthan, has been earmarked to harbour Namibian cheetahs as well. Former Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had approved the unrealistic plan for importing a dozen African cheetahs at an estimated cost of two crore rupees each.

The plan was put on hold after wildlife experts questioned its feasibility, pointing to the abject failure of authorities to protect tigers and even leopards, with the incidence of local people killing stray Panthera pardus being on the rise. Poaching has also reduced the number of leopards. Media reports this January that the Ministry of Environment and Forests, headed by Ms Jayanti Natarajan, would possibly clear the proposal to import cheetahs revived Indian wildlife experts' worst fears. Apparently, Namibian experts, including Lorrie Marker, supposedly a cheetah specialist, had approved the 345 sq km area identified for cheetahs.

The cliched justification proffered for the scheme in the corridors of power is that cheetahs were once native to India. But so too were unicorns, judging by representations of these mythic creatures on Indus-Saraswati Valley seals. While no one knows what happened to unicorns, trophy hunters finished off cheetahs by 1947. Once here, poachers, no doubt, will get to work. Forest dwellers and people on the peripheries of wildlife reserves can also be expected to hunt down these swiftest of predators for their own and livestock protection or to feed the illicit wildlife trade.

Another reason forwarded by the Ministry  officials for importing cheetahs is that these big cats will help revive India's grasslands as they survive in such terrain.

However, opponents of the scheme convincingly trash these arguments. They point out that the climate, terrain and prey base is very different from that of Africa's, where cheetahs have managed to survive after relocation within the continent. Acclimatisation would pose the biggest problem for the Namibian carnivores. The species is different from Asiatic cheetahs, and introducing it here would violate the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.

Indian grasslands are not like Africa's, where these carnivores survive easily. The prey base is also different. Here, chinkaras that would mainly constitute the prey base are on the decline. Moreover, cheetahs will have to compete with tigers and leopards for food and territory.

On top of this, if Asiatic lions from Gujarat, too, are brought into the same territory, the worst can be expected. The rapidly shrinking wildlife habitat, devoured by mining, agriculture, roads and colonisation, has resulted in grave man-animal conflicts, to the detriment of the latter.

Cheetahs have a chance of surviving only if they are given inviolate space. But this is impossible, considering that even tiger habitats are encroached upon by roads, hotels, Government project and, worst of all, poachers. Palpur Kuno is close to Ranthambore tiger sanctuary, and big cats often stray out of their areas.

If the grandiose intention of wildlife authorities in Madhya Pradesh is to have jungle safaris, hinging on the co-existence of lions, cheetahs, tigers and leopards in common territory, they seem to be overly ambitious.

They need to take care of the existing tiger reserves, especially Panna, which now has about five adults, brought in from other reserves, and their cubs. Rajasthan's track record in protecting tigers is also blemished by the Sariska disaster.

Given this scenario, Gujarat's lions are safer in their own habitat. The 2010 census showed the presence of 411 lions in the Gir National Park and its surroundings. In the early 20th century, these majestic creatures had been reduced by hunters to a meagre 15, before the Nawab of Junagadh declared the Gir forest area and its lions to be protected.

The national park and forest sanctuary were established in 1965. In an interview a couple of years ago, HS Panwar, former director, Project Tiger, credited the success of lion conservation in Gujarat to the fact that "the Government of Gujarat is seized of the matter right from the Chief Minister to field formations of forest and police departments."

Local people are also opposed to the plan for transferring lions to Madhya Pradesh, which has been pending since 2009. However, a petition filed by a conservationist in the Supreme Court contends that in the event of an epidemic in the Gir forest, the whole population of Asiatic lions would be wiped out.

That, perhaps, is the only tenable reason for relocating some of them. But it certainly cannot be in tiger or cheetah territory.

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