Sunday, July 22, 2007

Asiatic lions - victims of Indian federalism.

State Pulse: Gujarat: Asiatic lions - victims of Indian federalism
The state machinery has failed to protect lions - from being poached, from falling into open wells and from getting mixed up with resident cattle, sometimes infected- Proloy Bagchi

There has been widespread outrage among wildlife conservationists at the death of around eighteen Asiatic lions since January 2007 in Gir Sanctuary. More than a dozen perished since March alone. The last death occurred around 10th May. As many as eight of them were poached, four got drowned in parapet-less wells dug by villagers living inside the park and three died of natural causes. A gang of poachers, which until recently used to poach tigers to feed the expanding Chinese market for tiger-parts, has since been nabbed. Having more or less cleaned up most of the tiger reserves where the tiger-counts have registered drastic falls, they have now turned their attention to lions. Circumstantial evidence suggested complicity of some of the foresters in the killings.

Alarm bells seemed to have rung in Gujarat as no less a personage than Narendra Modi himself descended on Gir for on-the-spot enquiries. Obviously, poachers hit the state where it hurts. After all, just about a year back Gujarati wildlife officials had successfully fended off a move by the MoEF at the highest level for relocation of a few lions to Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh - a reserve long since readied but has had an interminably long wait for them. Modi promptly announced a Rs. 40 crore "Lion protection project" for, inter alia, recruiting 300 "knowledgeable" guards and installation of close-circuit cameras and transmitters. The hidden hand of "Gujarat's pride" apparently, made him cough up the money.

Gir has been losing lions with alarming frequency. About 22 killings were reported in 2005-2006. In February 2006 the Gujarat forest department admitted in a press-handout deaths of 90 to 95 lions (period not mentioned) due to accidents, infection and poaching. A Reuters April 2007 report spoke of wells dug up by villagers inside the Park claiming 21 lions during the last five years. In fact, thousands of wells in and around the Park with no parapets are progressively becoming a big hazard for the lions. Then, there was an anthrax scare last year. Some cattle perished before the infection was contained. It was a close shave for the lions.

Besides being grossly ill-equipped, the Park's forest guards suffer from demoralisation due to, lack of incentives, poor salaries, continuing vacancies and stagnation in the departmental cadres. Forest officers have candidly conceded the increasing difficulties being faced in guarding the Park's 1412 sq kms. Whether these facts ever came up for discussion at the meeting of National Board of Wildlife on 18th June 2006 chaired by the Prime Minister is doubtful. Representatives of Gujarat , rejecting out of hand the suitability of MP as a site for relocation of lions, talked of their own relocation plan (not yet implemented) in Saurashtra despite the prevailing inhibiting factors. Their contention that tigers and lions couldn't co-exist (in Kuno) is historically fallacious. They had co-existed in forests of Indian heartland for millenniums until lions were shot out. By succumbing to the Gujarati pressure in June 2006, the Centre heightened the risk to the threatened species.

Narendra Modi was recently reported to have said, "The lions are a symbol of Gujarat's uniqueness in the world. Why should we share it when we are capable enough?" That is precisely where he is wrong. His state machinery has failed to protect them - from being poached, from falling into open wells and from getting mixed up with resident cattle, sometimes infected. Besides, his writ doesn't run on epidemics and nature's fury. The comment of Belinda Wright, Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India, that "Lions belong to the whole planet and Gujarat has to learn to share them" doesn't quite rub off on him.

Outraged by Gujarat's conduct The Economist in its issue of 27 May 2007 said, "Protecting the Asiatic lions will take more than money... a second lion colony is needed, in order to guard against a high risk to the Gir lions" from epidemics and natural disasters. According to National Geographic, "Perpetuating the species is no easy work-lions copulate about 500 times for every litter produced...Because of the Asiatic lions' small gene pool, 70 to 80 percent of sperm is deformed."

Despite the worldwide indignation at Gujarat's pride taking precedence over the future of 300-odd Asiatic lions there is just no sign of the Centre forcing the issue of relocation of some to save the species. An effete Centre in a weird federal set-up is, seemingly, leading the lions towards extinction.


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