Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lions’ future should be more important than Narendra Modi’s pride

Lions' future should be more important than Narendra Modi's pride
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Narendra Modi should justifiably be proud of his lions. Gujarat is booming and its lions are roaring. In fact, the Gir Lion reserve has been a little too much of a success story. 400 lions in one reserve is making conservationists nervous about an infectious disease outbreak.

A virus killed hundreds of lions in Serengeti in 1994. So they want to send some lions over to the Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Not too many. And not all at once – typically a pride of one male and two or three females – to be moved every three to five years over 25-30 years.

But Gujarat's Lion King will not share his pride. Narendra Modi's government has been fighting tooth and nail to not have to send any of his lions to Madhya Pradesh. Modi has made it an issue of his personal prestige.

Obviously this being Modi, every thing gets blown out of proportion – the subtext becoming can the man who cannot share lions with a neighbour, that too a BJP-ruled neighbour, share power with coalition fat cats if he is to be a prime ministerial aspirant one day. Also why is a man who wants to build a reputation as a no-nonsense pragmatist putting emotional pride ahead of common sense. Modi personally chaired the meetings that prepared the counter argument to the Supreme Court.

What's astonishing in this whole lion case is the argument the Gujarat government thought fit to use to stall the translocation. His government told the court it thought of the lions as "family member and hence be not parted with it" as if an overbearing Court was ripping a joint family apart. It's puzzling why the lawyers even thought the lions "as family member" argument could sway the Supreme Court. Especially when it comes to a state like Gujarat. Gujaratis are famous for being on the move.

They take pride in crossing oceans to set up businesses and motels and stores in small towns in the middle of nowhere. In her book, Leaving India, Minal Hajratwala writes about how her family spread from five villages in Gujarat to nine different countries from being a stowaway on a ship to South Africa to running a department store in Fiji to being a professor in New Zealand where the sheep outnumbered the people.

It's ludicrous that against that backdrop of fearless migration, Gujarat seems to want to mollycoddle its lions, loath to even let them cross over to the next state.

"The cardinal issue is not whether the Asian lion is a family member, but the preservation of an endangered species," ruled the court firmly and unsurprisingly. This is hardly anything new or specific to Gujarat or lions. As a letterwriter to The Telegraph points out "Incidentally, the fate of India's rhinoceros population had looked bleak because they were once confined to Kaziranga only.

However, steps were taken to spread the rhino population more evenly across multiple national parks." Rhinos are still routinely poaching victims but at least spread aross different sanctuaries they have more of a fighting chance. Lions deserve no less.

The argument that could have had resonance was whether the lions would be safe in Kuno where the government has relocated 24 villages to make room for the lions. Gujarat has singlehandedly brought the Asiatic lion back from the brink. Could Kuno squander those gains? Kavitha Rao writes in The Guardian:

Kuno has a strong gun culture, and the Supreme Court has agreed that forest staff will need to be trained and deployed to prevent poaching. Locals will need to be educated, involved and given a stake in conservation

The poaching argument is a serious argument and a valid one. Just because Kuno has experience with tigers doesn't mean it can deal with lions in the same way. Lions are great travelers which makes them harder to monitor and keep safe. They are not elusive cats like tigers and leopards and more prone to conflict with livestock.

Conservation biologist Dharmendra Khandal writes that at least two forest guards have been killed there in the last five years. The Mogya tribe in the area is not as pro-wildlife conservation as the Maldharis in Gujarat. "(T)he poachers are not the only problem, there are the dacoits and bandits as well, who are using these Mogyas as trackers in the forest," writes Khandal.

These are all legitimate worries and concerns that put the well-being of the species first. By arguing family values, Modi's government does neither itself, nor its lions any good.

Saving the lion might be a fillip to Gujarati pride but as Neha Sinha of the Bombay Natural History Society points out in an op-ed, ""(The court) is, in effect, reinforcing the wildness of animals by stressing that wild animals belong to natural and wide-ranging habitats and not States and their units of governance."

Ramachandra Guha writes that long before Narendra Modi took up the mantle for the Asiatic lion, it was protected in Gujarat "thanks largely to a Muslim prince and a British imperialist." Lord Curzon who understood the importance of conservation would turn down an invitation for a lion shoot. The Nawab of Junagadh would use that "as a precedent to keep out other trophy hunters."

The Asiatic lion once roamed across India. Modi should take it as a good portent that he can be the man who can put it back on the path to its old glory days, today Gujarat, tomorrow India, instead of sulking that Supreme Court views the Gir lion as Indian animal instead of just a Gujarati one.

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