Saturday, April 20, 2013

The curious case of Gujarati lions

The curious case of Gujarati lions
Mumbai Mirror

We must focus our attention to safeguard the interest of the species

Newspaper reports would have us believe that this was a political tussle between the neighbouring states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, dumbing down a serious issue to something infantile, like two children squabbling over a plaything. It is anything but that. Whether some lions from Gujarat's Gir forest should be translocated to another site in Madhya Pradesh raises several difficult questions about viable wildlife conservation strategies and environmental law.

The Asiatic lion, panthera leo persica, so far only found in the forests of Gir in Gujarat, is an endangered species. There are just over 400 of these creatures in the wild as of 2010. At the turn of the 20th century there were less than a dozen. Hunting lions has been banned since before Independence. Their numbers have since grown, though nearly 50 die each year.

In the mid-1980's, concerned about the inherent fragility of an endangered species in a single habitat, and the potential catastrophe in the event of an epidemic, scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) began studying the lions and the Gir forests. They concluded that a second additional site for the lions was essential to their survival. They suggested three sites, two in Rajasthan and one in Madhya Pradesh, of which the latter was thought to be optimal. Madhya Pradesh began relocating villages from the Kuno sanctuary to other areas.

This was done in a phased manner, under the supervision of a special monitoring committee. Madhya Pradesh is known for its tiger population, but in Kuno tiger densities are low and inconsequential. The WII also studied the prey base in Kuno in 2005.

Creating states based on regional identity fans needless jingoism and obscures larger, nation-wide or even global concerns. All states so created have this tendency and it manifests itself in different ways. In Gujarat, the problem is exacerbated by the fusing of the state's identity with that of its Chief Minister, or our Prime-Minister-In-Perpetual-Waiting, Mr Narendra Modi. The proposal to shift some (note: not all) lions to better their chance of survival and guard against their extinction was met, predictably, with howls of protest from Gujarat claiming that this 'wounding of the pride of Gujarat' was a political conspiracy to undermine Modi and impoverish the state and undo NaMo's fabled 'development model'. A PIL was filed in the Supreme Court (but of course). Gujarat submitted a 7-point list of objections to the National Board of Wildlife: the presence of tigers, inappropriate climatic conditions in Kuno, insufficient prey base, the lions in Gujarat have been spreading out, that Gujarat has an effective lion conservation campaign. Several meetings and affidavits and years later, the PIL was finally heard by the Supreme Court and decided last Monday.

While the arguments on both sides have remained much the same since the debate began, what is of interest, and what makes this decision especially important, is that the Supreme Court set out the legal standard by which such matters are to be decided and gauged: "while examining the necessity of a second home for the Asiatic lions, our approach should be eco-centric and not anthropocentric, and we must apply the 'species best interest standard', that is the best interest of the Asiatic lions. We must focus our attention to safeguard the interest of the species, as these species have equal rights to exist on this earth. ... We, as human beings, have a duty to prevent a species from going extinct ..." The threat of extinction was very much a determinative factor in this decision.

Animals have no regional identity. Why, they do not even have Aadhaar cards. Imagine that. A tiger is a tiger from India, not a tiger from Assam or Rajasthan.

The lion is the Asiatic lion, not some khamandhokla sub-species, and it is the merest accident that it lives in Gir. There is no reason it should be confined to that forest, for Gir is not, as last advised, the Tihar jail for lions. Animals belong to the nation, and to all mankind. The Court duly rubbished Gujarat's proprietary claims: "No state, organisation or person can claim ownership or possession over wild animals in the forest."

The court was, it seems, on a more slippery slope when it said that Kuno is the 'historical habitat' of the Asiatic lion. If this is to be understood to mean that lions are indigenous to the area, then there is very little evidence of it. In their new book, "Exotic Aliens: The Lion & the Cheetah in India", Valmik Thapar, Romila Thapar and Yusuf Ansari conclude that the lion was never an indigenous species. It seems to have been introduced as an exotic trophy, kept as a pet or bred for hunting, very likely brought in via northwest India perhaps around 550-330 BCE and later again at the time of Alexander.

The lion only "leaps into prominence with Ashoka Maurya in the third century BCE" as a "symbol of supremacy and authority".

We are familiar with at least one form of this representation, from the lion capital at Sarnath of four lions back-to-back each facing one of the four points of the compass. It is not accident that this is today our national emblem, one that appears on our passports, currency, government letterheads and, yes, our courts.

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