Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lions’ den draws nature-loving tourists after monsoon break

Lions' den draws nature-loving tourists after monsoon break
Khaleej Times Online

The Gir wildlife sanctuary near Junagadh in Gujarat, the only home of Asiatic lions, has just opened for nature-loving tourists after a four-month monsoon break and the call of the wild has already been drawing day-trippers in droves.
Ever since the gates to the 1,450-square-kilometre leafy park were unlocked on October 16, holidayers from South Africa, Ireland, Australia, Brazil and various parts of the country, especially West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, have enjoyed close encounters with the jungle king in natural surroundings.

The quick ride in special vehicles through the dense forest between dawn and dusk for a glimpse of the roaring royals gives them a breathtaking experience in the protected woodlands which house as many as 411 majestic lions, besides countless leopards, jungle cats, rusty spotted cats, spotted deer, four-horned antelopes and the wild boar.

In fact, all the 200-odd hotels and guest houses around Gir have been booked to capacity much before next week's Diwali celebrations and the rush is so heavy that forest officials, who hitherto allowed entry to only 90 vehicles every day, have this year eased the number of vehicles to 150. According to tourism minister J N Vyas, during 2010-11, Gir received 271,745 tourists, 31 per cent more than previous year when 2,06,563 visited the sanctuary blessed with rich bio-diversity. And before the jungle was closed in June last for the monsoons coinciding with the mating season of the beasts, some 1,08,996 adventure lovers have already been to the picturesque park.

Kamlesh Patel, chairman of the Gujarat Tourism Corporation Limited, admitted that the advertisement campaign featuring superstar Amitabh Bachchan had also created awareness about improved facilities at Gir, leading to influx of tourists from all over the globe.

The Gir visitors, however, complain of poor infrastructure, transport and air connectivity. Some also express concern over death of 30 lions in the none-too-distant past. The fact that tigers walk away with a lions' share, literally, of the federal government funds also worries the Gujarat's forest department.

The government of the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh has been desperately trying to acquire at least eight of Gir's 411 lions, saying that their location in just one abode makes the rare big cats, smaller than their African counterparts but equally aggressive, vulnerable to extinction. Wildlife experts have been arguing that a disease outbreak or a disaster like forest fire or cyclone has the potential to erode conservation achievements of the past 100 years. It is also said that a scientific conservation plan for translocating a few lions to establish a second free-ranging population of lions in the country has been languishing due to the lack of political consensus and stewardship.

Indeed, 25 villages have already been relocated and hundreds of families resettled at enormous human and financial cost to prepare the forest of Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh as the second home for lions in India.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the people of Gujarat have been opposing the Madhya Pradesh proposal for just eight lions required to start the Kuno conservation initiative. Well, the matter is now in the Supreme Court as a conservationist has filed a public interest petition over the delay.

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