Saturday, July 7, 2007

In search of A Lair
By Priya Sugathan Source: Free Press Journal.
The sprawling luxurious land of Gir makes it the perfect kingdom for a king. A kingdom of 1424 sq. kms with thirty species of mammals, twenty species of reptiles, several birds and insects playing subjects to the Asiatic Lion. Also called as Sasan Gir, it's the largest wildlife sanctuary outside Africa, where one can see the Lion in all its glory. The Gir Protected Area (GPA) located in the Saurashtra peninsula attracts sixty thousand visitors to it every year.
How did it come about?
Centuries ago, the Asiatic lion roamed wild and free throughout the country. From Greece through to West Asia, Bengal and Bihar. Due to extreme indulgence of the royals in trophy hunting, the number dwindled down to a handful 15. The last lion to be seen outside of Gir was in the year 1884.
On the advise of Lord Curzon in the 1900s, the then Nawab of Junagad announced to decision to protected the endangered species.
It was the first step to protect lions. By 1913, when the population of lions once again bordered on extinction, the British administrators put a ban on shooting the lions. Thereafter steps were taken for the conservation of the forest and the lion king. The Gir was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1969 with a core area of 140.4 sq. km. Six years later it expanded into a national park of 258.71 sq km. Today with the continuing efforts to save the species, the lion population has gone up to 312.
The Asiatic Lion
The Asiatic Lion in Gir is a foot shorter than their African cousin. Although smaller, a really large male lion in Gir stands majestic and regal it nevertheless is a majestic at nine and a half feet. It has long tail tassel with a prominent belly and a shade lighter than the African lion. Very importantly, unlike it's African cousin, the Asiatic lion refuses to feed on carrion. Although it is ferocious with it 28 teeth, 18 fingers and claws that double fold, it's the only animal that attacks when hungry. It usually shuns human beings and resorts to attacking them only when it's starving. This quality of grace and magnanimity in the animal has earned it the title of the King of the Jungle. Similarly humans exhibiting such strength, grace and valour are known as the 'lion-hearted'.
The Search
A month ago a local channel stated in their news that some officers from Madhya Pradesh were on their way to the Gir forest to shift some of the lions. As soon the news spread, the locals reacted very strongly. Dr. J P Agrawal, The chief conservator of forest said that they have not received any official intimation about it from the MP government or the Central government. An opinion seconded by Pradip Khanna, deputy in charge of the Wild Animal department. A forest officer on grounds of anonymity says that "this proposed move has been in the making for quite sometime now. Especially since the only reason behind it is to find a second home for a protected species.
The government of Gujarat are looking out for this second home within the State. They have marked out the Barda Forest near Porbander as the second home for the lion. So naturally they may oppose the move. But finally the Government of India will take a consensus only after discussing it with the Wildlife Institute in Dehradun."
It is not the first time that have tried to move the lions. Twenty years ago they experimented by shifting the lions to the Kunomalpur forests of MP. But the experiment failed when the lions died.
Why the need for a second home?
One of the main reason is the resident Maldharis or professional grazers. The cattle greatly reduced the quality of grazing for wild animals. The Maldharis have also destroyed a considerable amount of forested land for agricultural and domestic purposes and there is much illegal removing of trees. They are now being resettled outside the sanctuary and this, to some extent, has alleviated the situation. However, the buffer areas surrounding the main forests have increasingly come under the plough with consequent conflict between wildlife and farmer. Secondly the lions have been vulnerable to epidemics because of their concentration in one area.
The Gujarat Irrigation Department is pressing for the construction of a dam, which would flood over large areas of the Gir area, in addition to causing great disturbance during construction (1982). It would also affect the dispersal area for prey species. A further disturbance to the area was the loss of 2 million trees during a cyclone in November 1982. The question is what if Asiatic lions found only in Gir forest die of an epidemic or in a natural disaster? This has propelled the move to find the project to find another lair for the regal animal.
Is it a wise move
After the experiment that failed twenty years ago, the Gujarat government are not in a mood to shift the lions. One of the arguments are that even if the lion survived the climate and got used to the habitats there, the locals would not leave it in peace. Lion's limbs and nails fetch handsome prices in the international market, and MP is said to be the one of the safest haven for poaching. The Asiatic Lions would be vulnerable to these attacks by the local tribals who don't understand the importance of protecting an endangered species.
Even more important are the reactions of the locals of Gujarat. "They are in anguish about this proposed plan to move the lions to MP. They are not in favour of shifting their beloved lions, whom they are very fond of. It's like a family member being usurped from them. A tribe in Kathiawar consider the lions as incarnations of saints," says a local in Junagadh. "Why you may ask? Because the lion is the only animal who has a sense of belonging like the humans. It always moves in a group and a family. Everything is done in accordance of the family," says the local.
Till then long live the ol' King Leo. And long live it's lair in Gir, until the next one arrives.

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