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Reprieve for Asiatic lions

Asiatic lionsHanging fire for decades the Supreme Court resolved the issue the other day. The issue was about relocation of a few Asiatic lions from their only home in the Gir National Park to the already-prepared Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh (MP). It was stonewalled by Gujarat for all these years claiming, as it did, the lions as its own.

The Court ordered in favour of the proposal and went by the considerations based on scientific reasoning that one couldn't really put all one’s all eggs in only one basket. The proposal had been mooted by the wildlife experts of central and the two state governments concerned and the MP government had prepared the Kuno Palpur sanctuary for reception of the Asiatic lions. Gujarat, however, had a change of heart and started opposing the shift with all its might. The Sanctuary patiently waited out the decades nursing its ecosystem in the hope that better counsels would prevail someday.

That day has come now. But, strangely, a matter that is purely administrative in character and should have been decided within the governmental framework had to go all the way up to the Supreme Court at great public expense for the reason of mulish defiance of all scientific reasoning by the Gujarat administration.

Though the Court, as is its wont, gave a decision as logical as it should be, the reactions in Gujarat defy logic. Its people are fuming. The decision sparked protests in Junagadh and a bandh (forced stoppage of all activity – commercial or whatever) has been called at Sasan, close to the Gir Park. One wouldn't be surprised if some activist adopts the Gandhian method of undertaking a fast unto death. Gir is not far away from Porbandar, the birthplace of the Mahatma.

The villagers residing within the Park have been so well brainwashed that they are reported to have said that they would part with their lions only over their dead bodies. The sense of appropriation for themselves and for Gujarat of the rare, critically endangered species appeared to be complete as, indeed, was their instigation at the hands of the propagators of “Gujarat asmita” (Gujarat’s Identity). True, survival and increasing numbers of the Asiatic lions in Gir is a success story worthy of being proud of, yet, the lives of the lions are held together by a slender thread, acutely vulnerable as they happen to be to any mishap – an epidemic, for instance, the like of which had wiped out about 90% of the Tanzanian lions during the last decade of 20th Century.

Once spread over a wide area in India and its neighbouring countries, trophy-hunting and poaching drastically reduced the numbers of Asiatic lions. I recall having read somewhere that a British officer had claimed to have shot as many as half a dozen lions in one outing somewhere close to Hissar, back then in Punjab, in the 19th Century. Much earlier, Mogul Emperor Akbar is reported to have hunted lions near Rewa, now in Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of kilometres away from Gir. Lions shared their extensive habitat in the plains of India with three other big cats – the tiger, leopard and the cheetah – indicating its richness and ampleness of the prey-base in the forests of the country. But over the centuries and decades hunting and poaching took their toll, as also the rapid rise in population necessitating clearing of vast tracts of forests appreciably reducing their once-thriving habitat.

In the process while the cheetah became extinct the three other big cats saw drastic reduction in their numbers. By the last count tigers were around 1700 in number, surviving in a few pockets across the country and are under severe threat of extinction because of persistent poaching and indifferent management. Though the leopard seemed to have somehow survived, its count, though hardly ever methodically taken, is surely not more than in a few hundreds. Due to shrinkage of its habitat it often comes in conflict with humans in almost all corners of the country and reports of its being trapped or being mercilessly done to death by insensitive villagers and urbanites frequently appear in the press. A project for conservation of leopards on the lines of that of the tiger is indicated if the species is to be saved and propagated in the wild.

The Asiatic lions are, however, much worse off. Having lorded over better part of the sub-continent for centuries human insensitivity drove them into a far western corner of India where the late Nawab of Junagarh, having been instrumental in wiping off lots of them and faced with their precariously low numbers in the early parts of the 20th Century, had the sudden realisation that the beasts needed to be conserved. Howsoever rudimentary in nature the conservation effort was it, at least, stopped the animals’ wanton killings. Post-independence conservation efforts, mainly by creation of a sanctuary for the lions at Gir and later converting it into National Park yielded better results.

Today they are around 400-odd in number (by a Gujarat count). Packed within the limited confines of the Park they are too many for it and are reported to be wandering out into neighbouring areas of Amreli district. They have also been sighted in other small settlements in Junagarh district outside the Park and even near Diu. The Park is virtually bursting at its seams, so to say, crawling with Asiatic lions as it would seem.

Having once belonged to the entire country the lions could not be justifiably converted into Gujarati lions with the state exercising exclusive rights over them. The animals surely have found succour from the state government which has nursed and cared for them; but the entire nation, and why, even the world has contributed towards their protection and conservation through personnel, expertise and finances. Since they happen to be located in India the country has the right over them as also the duty to ensure that this endangered species endures and enriches the country’s wildernesses with its presence.

Appreciating its obligation in this respect the Centre showed unusual alacrity in conducting a countrywide survey to look for a suitable site for a second home for the lions and pitched on Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in 1993-94. It also pumped in the required finances to prepare the Sanctuary over the last two decades to enable it to host the lions. That no mishap occurred during the intervening period has been a matter of luck for Gujarat or else “Gujarat asmita” would have seen the end of this significant species. The loss would have been not of Gujarat alone but of the entire world.

The orders of the apex court place onerous responsibilities on the MP government, especially the Wildlife Wing of its forest department. Its performance in recent times has not been very encouraging and the same had been forcefully argued out at the apex court by Gujarat lawyers against the proposed shifting of the lions to the state.

“Panna” still stalks them as also 12 tiger deaths in 10 months of 2012 and 3 in 2013. Poaching of tigers and their electrocution by farmers has gone on unchecked. Reports have also consistently appeared about poaching and hunting of game from the constituency of the state’s forest minister. While his tenure has been crammed with controversies, the chief minister of the state has displayed definite aversion towards wildlife when it comes to a crunch – a crunch that has political overtones. The foresters, therefore, will have to exert their utmost to ensure safety and well being of the lions, as indeed of other animals in the wild, as the history does not quite foster faith in their commitment to the wild.

Gujarat government, on the other hand, is yet to come to terms with the judgement of the Supreme Court and is, quite unwisely, mulling a review petition against the apex court’s orders. One hopes better sense will eventually prevail and the judgement will be accepted, if not for anything else, at least for the sake of the lions.


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