23 Deaths in 20 Days: How Gujarat's 'Misplaced Pride' is Killing Its Lions
New Delhi: Twenty three lions have died in Gir in Gujarat in the last 20 days, while three more are battling for their lives. But these were deaths foretold and with red flags raised as early as the 1950s, conservationists argue that Gujarat's misplaced pride is killing its lions.
The three surviving lions, forest department officials confirmed, are also suffering from the same deadly outbreak of the canine distemper virus (CDV) and tick-borne babesiosis in the Dalkhaniya range.
Of the 21 deaths - four died of CDV, while the 17 were killed by the tick-borne infection that is usually found in canines and cattle in the wild.
The forest department had initially claimed that the lions died due to infighting and not disease. While Dushyant Vasavda, Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), could not be reached for comment, MoEF officials said that the deaths were avoidable.
"It is a question of genetic diversity. When you have a species which is bottle-necked, then they become more susceptible to disease. The risks to population also include catastrophes like a forest fire or an extreme weather event," explained an official of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), who did not wish to be named.
It was on the basis of this rationale that in April 15, 2013, the Supreme Court had directed the MoEF to "take urgent steps for the reintroduction of the Asiatic lion from Gir forests to Kuno" Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh asking authorities to carry out the order in its "letter and spirit" within six months. That order is yet to be complied with and officials of the Madhya Pradesh forest department maintained that Gujarat's unwillingness to part with the lions remained the key stumbling block.
Ajay Dubey, a wildlife activist from Madhya Pradesh, has filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court demanding action for non-compliance.
Trapped in the 1,621 square kilometer area in Gir, the lions are now cramped for space and susceptible to disease.
"A person doesn't get life insurance because they think that they are going to die. It is a question of being prepared. This is similar. It is an internationally accepted scientific protocol that is aimed at the long-term conservation of an endangered species - a species, whose survival is actually a success story for Gujarat. It is now about managing and enduring this success," said Ravi Chellam, conservation scientist.
In the 1950s, biologists pointed out that a single population of the species faced threats of epidemics, natural disasters and human hazards. Over half a century later, the warnings have come back to haunt Gujarat.
In September 2011, the Centre for Animal Disease Research and Diagnosis (CADRAD), Bangalore, and Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Uttarakhand, analysed tissues from a 2007 Gir lion carcass. They found the presence of highly contagious peste des petits ruminants virus (PPRV) - the same species of morbillivirus as the CDV. The PPRV is highly contagious and carries an 80-100% chance of mortality.
This was, as per the researchers, the first report of detection and partial genetic characterisation of PPRV isolated from Asiatic lion tissues. The study had warned, "Greater emphasis should be placed on continuous serological and clinical surveillance of PPR in wild ruminants to better understand the prevalence of PPRV, its impact on wildlife conservation, and the possible roles of different species in PPRV transmission."
Meanwhile, the devastating link between the CDV and potential epidemics has been known since 1994, when within the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of East Africa nearly a third of the lion population died or disappeared. Analysis found the CDV was closely related to the domestic dog in South Africa. The same pattern is being repeated in Gujarat today, with the forest department confirming the spread of the CDV from dogs to the lions.
After early attempts at reintroducing lions outside Gujarat failed, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) began studying the species and its habitat from 1986. In 1990, the WII proposed the creation of a second wild population of Asiatic lions to safeguard the species against potential calamities in Gujarat's Gir National Park. It favoured shifting of about 40 lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh's Palpur Kuno sanctuary.
But while a total of 24 villages, comprising 1,545 families were relocated from Kuno and crores were spent to assess the viability of the habitat. Gujarat, however, remained steadfast in its opposition of the relocation. Mangubhai Patel, former forest minister in 2004 refused to part with 19 animals for an initial relocation plan and said, "There is no need to shift lions from Gir. We will ensure their survival here."
This set the tone for the Gujarat government's objections which were eventually overruled by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Now over five years later, as the lion carcasses pile up, the plan still remains only on paper.
Gujarat had contended that the translocation of the lions couldn't take place because of insufficient prey densis. But the apex court order had cited various surveys conducted by the WII and the Madhya Pradesh government that had found the prey density to be better than at Gir.
The most recent objection by the Gujarat government was to increase the land area of the sanctuary - which has now been done. The Madhya Pradesh forest department's Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (APCCF) of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department confirmed that the sanctuary was now over 700 sq kilometer.
"Two wildlife sanctuaries have been notified and the state has increased the size of Kuno-Palpur from 350 sq km to over 700 sq km," explained an official.
For now, there is no word from the Gujarat government. The three remaining lions of the now decimated pride continue their battle for survival.