Monday, August 19, 2013

It's a Jungle Out tHere

It's a Jungle Out tHere
The Indian Express

An Asiatic lion crosses a road near Amreli district

In Gujarat, animals and birds are increasingly sighted near human habitats

A flock of lesser flamingos descends on a pool of dirty water in Juhapura, Ahmedabad, their crimson-smeared white wings striking against the muddy brown of the sewage water. This rare migratory bird, which flies to Gujarat every winter from Central Asia, is spotted regularly in this colony. Chandola lake, in a lower middle-class neighbourhood of Ahmedabad, is another birder's paradise bang in the middle of urban squalor, with cormorants, painted storks and spoonbills making it their home.

In the Gujarat capital, and indeed in other parts of the state, many animals seem to be straying close to human habitats, posing a wildlife conundrum: is it better conservation that is pushing them to cities?

For instance, according to a 2010 census of Asiatic lions, there were 411 lions in the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, the only natural habitat of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), spread over 1,412 square kilometres. But forest officers believe that the big cats now roam in an area covering more than 1,800 sq km, spread over four districts of Junagadh, Amreli, Porbandar and Bhavnagar (known as the Gir protected area). A significant portion of this is revenue land (land under the collectorate, meant for use by people). In fact, a few lion prides have settled as far away as 80 km from the border of eastern Gir forests, in Bhavnagar. "Lions roam almost every day in my mango orchard. I believe they come here in search of water and prey," says Sardarsinh Chauhan, a farmer of Lusava Gir village in Talala taluka, bordering Gir West forests.

Forest officers say there are other reasons for the lions to step out of the jungle. "Historically, Asiatic lions were found as far away as Iran and parts of Europe but were reduced to a smaller area due to habitat loss and hunting. Now that their population is growing (the last three censuses have shown a rise in numbers), they are recapturing their lost territory. This is the reason they are seen near human settlements," says Kasuladev Ramesh, deputy conservator of forest of Gir West division.

Similarly, the numbers of the Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur), locally called khar or ghudkhar, had once been reduced to a few hundreds. The 2010 census placed their numbers at 4,038. Their protected habitat is the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch, over 200 km north-west of Ahmedabad. Groups of up to 40 wild asses wandering in agricultural fields in Dhrangadhra, Lakhtar and Patdi talukas of Surendranagar, bordering the sanctuary, is a common sight. "Many of the khars have settled in bushes near my farm for more than 10 years. They don't fear human beings anymore and they can graze on crops even in the day," says Jayesh Vegda, a farmer of Vana village in Lakhtar taluka.

Cereal crops are the most preferred feed of this shy herbivore. "Due to the nuisance of the khar, farmers had stopped growing cereals in this region many years ago," says Vegda, who owns 20 bighas of land and mainly grows cotton.

Forest officers say it's common for wild asses to move out of the forest. "Nearly a decade ago, large groups of wild asses moved to faraway places in search of food and water during droughts. Since those were available, they settled in those areas," says Jesing Chaudhary, district forest officer at the Wild Ass Sanctuary.  Some wild asses are found as far away as Nal Sarovar in Ahmedabad district, some 40 km from the sanctuary. "In the past, the species was spread across a much larger geographical area. So, this can be called their natural dispersal for the second time," says Chaudhary.

While most environmental activists believe that expanding human settlements are swallowing up animal habitats, wildlife expert Bharat Jethwa believes that good conservation practices can also be a reason why wild animals are being spotted near cities. "This is a unique phenomenon of Gujarat. While in other areas you hear of elephants and leopards straying close to human settlements and sometimes attacking people, very rarely do you spot a wild ass or a lion doing that in Gujarat. These are large endemic species characteristic of a particular region. The wild ass is endemic to the Rann of Kutch and the Asiatic lions are found in Gir and nowhere else in India. Increasingly, it looks like wild animals do not mind human presence. This is indicative of the rise in the number of lions and wild asses due to good conservation measures," he says.

The support from people in the regions of Kutch, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar for conservation has helped further. Gujarat, says Jethwa, has a rich diversity of habitats and a history of humans coexisting with wildlife, with the local culture deeply invested in wildlife conservation. "There is hardly any retaliatory killing of wild animals here. Since they don't get maimed by people when they stray near cities, they come more often," he says.

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