Gujarat's Asiatic Lions can become the pride of the world if Gir Sanctuary is declared a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site
Are Asiatic Lions of Gir a matter of pride only for Gujarat? In fact, the sanctuary can become UNESCO's natural World Heritage Site as it is the only home to Asiatic Lions in the world.
The only effort made to get UNESCO recognition was made in 1992 by then Janata Dal (Gujarat) Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel. However, the application was not upheld by the world body and since then no efforts have been made in this direction.
The benchmark to get global recognition lies very much in Ahmedabad, which got inscribed as India's first World Heritage City by UNESCO on July 8, 2017. Even wildlife experts say that Gir Sanctuary can qualify for the coveted tag provided proper documentation-cum-application is made. If it's successful, then lion conservation efforts can get a major boost.
According to UNESCO, World Heritage sites are selected based on six cultural and four natural criteria. One of the "natural" criterion is: "to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation."
The other criterion says, "to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land use, or sea-use which is representative of culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change."
India already has seven natural sites which have got UNESCO recognition: Great Himalayan National Park (2014), Western Ghats (2012), Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (1988) and adjoining Valley of Flowers (2005), Sundarbans (1987), Kaziranga National Park (1985), Keoladeo National Park (1985) and Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (1985).
The Gir Sanctuary exemplifies conservation of threatened species and harmonious existence of locals with unique natural environment.
Retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) A K Sharma told Mirror, "If Manas and Kaziranga can get the natural heritage site tag then so can Gir Sanctuary which houses endangered species Asiatic Lion. I am not sure whether efforts are afoot to apply to the world body. However, if Gir gets the tag then it will give big boost to conservation of lions."
What the Forest Minister says
When asked why the successive BJP governments have not made any efforts to get UNESCO tag for Gir, Minister of State for Forest Ramanlal Patkar sidestepped the question and said, "The Prime Minister takes keen interest in issues pertaining to Gir. We are preparing a report to be sent to his office. The report will include suggestions made towards conservation of lions since 2001."
First and last application made in 1992
An application was made to UNESCO and the matter pursued between 1990 and 1992. Back then Chimanbhai Patel's Janata Dal (Gujarat) had formed the government, first in alliance with the BJP and later with the Congress.
Then forest minister Mohansinh Rathwa, while recalling the application made during his tenure, told Mirror, "We made great efforts to save lions back then and get global recognition. People were attached towards this magnificent animal. So much grant has come since then, but the current government does not seem be serious enough. If they were serious about conservation, then so many lion deaths would not have taken place."
What the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest says
Confirming that no effort has been made to file an application with UNESCO, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest G K Sinha told Mirror, "We have never applied. But, we are working on it. We are taking inputs from other departments about how Ahmedabad made it to the UNESCO list. We are understanding the process of application and will soon make it happen."