Monday, April 29, 2013

Expert speak on wildlife issues that led to the Gir Lion transfer fiasco

Expert speak on wildlife issues that led to the Gir Lion transfer fiasco
Daily Bhaskar

The loss of case and as much of its face in the Supreme Court over the translocation of Asiatic Lions to Madhya Pradesh has inadvertently revealed a deep rot of the Gujarat government in dealing with wildlife. Even as the Gujarat government doesn't exactly take wildlife issues 'lightly', many stakeholders have for long believed, and even more so now, that the state establishment doesn't give it due importance.
Can we look at this situation as perhaps an opportunity in disguise to introspect on the functioning of forest department? A fortnight after the SC announced its decision, green activists be it in Saurashtra or Gandhinagar believe the state government did not take the case seriously enough. That Gujarat's arguments against translocation were not presented in the court scientifically and assertively enough. After studying the order and a meeting of the state wildlife board later, observers believe that the government perhaps simply did not take the case seriously enough.
The issue arouses extreme emotions. "Who argued for us? What did they say in court? We were kept in dark. Forest officers appearing in court do not care for the lions like we do," cried Kodinar-based green activist Dinesh Goswami as he threatened self-immolation if lions are shifted. The larger sentiment in Gujarat may not be as sharp, but in the environmentalists' community, there is certainly a question as to what really happened? Where did we go wrong?
Science vs emotion: Blinded with Pride
In a nutshell there are two premises on which the case of lions' translocation is opposed by Gujarat – one: Kuno Palpur is not a safe alternative because of the presence of poachers, not enough prey-base, tigers in close vicinity and harsh climate. The second premise is the lions are not unsafe in Gujarat. Lions have long moved out of the Gir sanctuary into the Greater Gir area spread over four districts (Junagadh, Amreli, Bhavnagar and Porbandar) and 5,000 sq km; so the threat of a single epidemic wiping out the species or in-breeding does not arise as they are not in close contact with each other. This is the science of it. Each of these points were presented by Gujarat's forest department officials and countered effectively by national wildlife experts (See Box).
Did Gujarat bring in any scientific expert to argue its case? The only one appearing from Gujarat in SC was the respective wildlife warden of the time. A senior forest official passionately argues, "Our affidavits quoted multiple researches, scientific papers, acquired scientifically (sic) were presented in court. Our arguments were forceful. How else do you explain the Court having to refer the matter twice to the National Board for Wildlife in India?" he said, refusing to be identified given the sensitivity of the court case.
Member of NBWLI Divyabhanusinh Chavda agrees that Gujarat has done a very good job of declaring the surrounding forest areas as sanctuaries (Mitayala in Amreli, Pania in Porbandar and Girnar in Junagadh). "But when it comes to protecting 'lion corridors' – surrounding regions – it is not enough. Human development in the area is inevitable and a serious threat. Kudos to Gujarat for cherishing the Saavaj (colloquial for lion) for all these years, but it is just not possible to contain them in the region anymore," he says. Chavda, a Gujarati himself, was part of the NBWLI's standing committee appointed by SC that recommended translocation.
Former wildlife warden GA Patel who feels as passionately about the struggle now as he did when it initiated in the early 2000s during his tenure, says the national wildlife experts and MP officials ganged up against Gujarat and we failed to defend ourselves.
Well, when you are arguing a case it is expected that your points will be countered. So, what was our counter argument?
Emotion. Enter State Board for Wildlife. SBWL in a meeting in March 2012 advised the government to put forth the argument that Gujarat's USP is an extremely tolerant vegetarian community, which treats the lions as a "family member" or is part of the "Indian culture and civilization", and would therefore never hurt them.
This argument was shot down by court as anthropocentric and not eco-centric. The order says, "Our approach should not be human-centric or family-centric but eco-centric. 'Scientific reasoning' for its re-location has to supersede the family bond or pride of the people…" Some wildlife activists believe this was the clincher of sorts.
"The Gujarat government has run out of any valid arguments. We are talking about an endangered wildlife species here, not a pet animal you rear in your backyard," scoffed a senior wildlife biologist who has occasionally advised the court. He too requests anonymity. The argument of 'emotional connect and belonging' infact further spurred the debate on the ownership of the Lions. The court in a hearing in 2012 appeared miffed, and categorically states even in the order that wildlife is not ownership of any state but belongs to the nation.
If initial indications are anything to go by, in the review petition this will be the primary argument, albeit presented more forcefully.
State and wildlife
An essay on wildlife in Gujarat will have a long list of species that roam the length and breadth of the state – perhaps the largest variety in country as of date. As for the way political brass treats its Forest officers, the essay would be a long list of complaints. Over and above the fact that forest department is crippled with vacancies of officials in key posts, there is a long-standing grievance of wildlife activists that most of these officials anyways do not understand wildlife issues much. There is a perpetual requisition to create a separate cadre of forest officials who have had scientific training in wildlife issues, so that the powerful decision makers are technically informed about the subject. This issue is not specific to Gujarat but all over the country. "Wildlife was earlier considered punishment posting," Patel chuckles.
Why this issue becomes relevant in the lions' translocation case is because for most parts the strategizing for preparing Gujarat's arguments in court seemed to be done by different forest officials. Given the Modi government's propensity to come down heavily on whistleblowers, veteran environmentalists and activists do not want to be quoted, but in off-record conversations express their frustration at being stereotyped and relegated as 'biased activists'. "Just because we would not agree with one or the other proposal of the Modi government to give away a certain sensitive parcel of land to an industry, we are labeled and permanently typecasted," a reliable source says.
For about six years, till the arguments had nearly concluded, SBWL was not systematically consulted for the arguments in lion relocation case. One has often heard that the SBWL meeting hardly ever witnesses any heated debate as the CM chairs the meeting and members do not have much choice but to agree with the proposals – mostly diversion of land for different purposes. "Those who do argue are soon replaced on the board with more compliant members," the source confides. As it turns out, the SBWL meeting earlier this week was held only after some members practically demanded it. "Govt should have taken initiative to call the meeting to inform the Board about what happened in the case and what they are planning next," a member of the Board said.
As is for all services, IFS promotions are long due. The incumbent Wildlife Warden CN Pandey who took charge in November 2012 is still not full-time. He is in-charge of another important department (D&M). It is often argued that wildlife conservation in Gujarat is better than most other states of the country; but is that an aspiration benchmark?

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