Gir deaths: Experts slam delay in shifting lions to 2nd home
The Times Of India
NEW DELHI/AHMEDABAD: More than five years after the Supreme Court ordered that the Asiatic lion must have a second home, the death of 23 lions in the past three weeks to a deadly canine distemper virus (CDV) and babesiosis outbreak in Gir, Gujarat, is causing growing concern among experts over the slow pace of progress in the translocation project.
Overruling Gujarat's objections, the SC had in April 2013 ordered that a few lions from Gir must be shifted to Kuno Palpur sanctuary, spread across 344.68 sq km, in Madhya Pradesh to keep the Big Cat population safe in the event of a disaster. Gir is the only home of free-roaming Asiatic lions in the world.
"Those who have delayed the translocation in defiance of the Supreme Court order must be held responsible for exposing the lions to this kind of risk of extinction," said wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, one of the moving forces behind the relocation project.
Bhopal-based RTI activist Ajay Dubey, whose contempt petition in the SC over the delay in the relocation was disposed of in March this year after the Centre had assured the court of action in the matter, plans to move court again.
"We will file another contempt petition in the SC within a day or two since no substantial progress has taken place in the case," Dubey told TOI.
The last meeting of the expert committee set up to oversee the translocation took place in December 2016, Chellam said. "That was a field visit to Kuno Palpur where we all agreed that the sanctuary was ready to host lions. There have been six-seven meetings in all but no progress on the ground. The objective, it seemed, was to distract people in paperwork," said the expert who is a member of the committee.
Officials from Gujarat in the panel have demanded that the translocation should take place as per 31 guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of which requires a "natural corridor between the original site and the new site for Asiatic lion."
The state's officials also stressed the need for a "thorough assessment of attitudes of local people (at Kuno) to the proposed project to ensure long-term protection of the reintroduced population."
Meanwhile, Gujarat had also proposed to shift some lions to a new home within the state instead of MP. Said lion expert and member of the National Board for Wildlife, H S Singh, "It is high time that the big cats get an alternative home. I suggest it should be wiser if that alternate home is located in Gujarat."
Gujarat government in October 2014 got the Wildlife Institute of India's clearance for readying a 109 sq km area in Barda Dungar sanctuary in Porbander district - roughly 80 km from Gir forests. But the project hasn't taken off due to lack of political will and protests by the local Maldhari community.
"Barda currently suffers from a very prey base and presence of some 70 Maldhari settlements. But the point shouldn't be Kuno versus Barda. It can well be Kuno and Barda. Kuno is ready to take lions. But the issue is not conservation or biology-related, it is more political," said Kausik Banerjee, wildlife biologist at WII.
"If the CDV outbreak becomes an epidemic, there's a real threat of other Gir prides getting the infection. This combination of CDV and babesiosis had killed more than 1,000 lions in Serengeti in east Africa in 1993-94, wiping out a third of the population there," Banerjee warned.
While the translocation debate rages on, the Gujarat government's cabinet on Wednesday decided to procure 300 CDV vaccines from the US to ensure timely inoculation of Asiatic lions against the deadly viral disease.