Thursday, August 9, 2007

Gir lions need a second home.

2 Aug 2002, 2248 hrs IST,Shyam Parekh,TNN

AHMEDABAD: Narrowing gene pool, habitat under pressure and fear of extinction have compelled experts to think about finding a second home for the Gir lions.
A look at the history shows us how big and widespread the Gir forest was. Poet Zaverchand Meghani had mentioned in his works that Gir forests stretched till Gondal in the north, which is some 80 km from Sasan. It is also believed that there was a continuous corridor of vegetation between Gir and Girnar range outside Junagadh, making it into a one complete and compact unit of forest.
Today, both places are separated by over 40 km of human habitation.
"In the early 20th century, Gir was nearly 5,000 sq km in size, but has today shrunk down to a mere 1,412 sq km, thanks to agriculture and human habitats," says retired principal chief conservator of forests Sanat Chavan.
Figures of different census carried out in Gir from time to time show how the lion population was affected following reduction in green cover. The lion numbers were falling and had touched a low of 167 in 1960s.
The turnaround came in 1968 when the Smithsonian Institute of the USA, the Aberdeen University, Bombay Natural History Society and the Gujarat Forest Department jointly launched the 'Gir project'. This happened after some eminent wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists appealed to the state government about the pathetic and severely deteriorating ecological conditions of Gir, largely because of overgrazing.
"Majority of the cattle-rearing maldharis were removed from the forests which resulted in grazing pressure. The results were obvious, the population of spotted deer (chittal) has since risen from 400 to 40,000," he says.
The forest department then came up with the idea of shifting some of the lions to Barda Hills, which had been a home to lions in historic times. But the project was soon shelved as there was no prey base.
Subsequently in 1994, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) prepared a second home project, for lions. Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh was identified for the purpose. Alternately, Sitamata Sanctuary in Rajasthan was also considered for the project.
But "for all intents and purposes the habitat at Kuno is well suited to the lions. The prey density is low but it has definitely increased over the last few years. With better management, the situation can improve quite rapidly", believes WII expert Dr Ravi Chellam.
Lions need large areas of at least 1000 sq km and finding such large habitats is proving to be very very difficult these days. At this point in time it is difficult to find a better place than Kuno for shifting lions, he argues.
"Twenty-three of 24 villages have been shifted out of the sanctuary. A separate Kuno wildlife division has been constituted with an area of 1283 sq km, including the Kuno wildlife sanctuary, of 345 sq km in area," says Arpan Sharma of Samrakashan, a non-governmental organisation working for the rehabilitation project in Kuno.
Making a case for Kuno he says. "this additional area surrounding the sanctuary is meant to serve as a buffer to accommodate a dispersing lion population".
While preparation for a second home might be on full swing in Madhya Pradesh, there is no intimation to the Gujarat Forest Department about that.
"We don't know of any such project," says principal chief conservator of forests JP Agrawal. When asked about the Kuno project he said that neither the Madhya Pradesh forest department had consulted its counterpart in Gujarat nor had the ministry of environment and forests informed it.
It is this lack of co-ordination between participating agencies that is delaying the second home project. Meanwhile, consideration for an alternative home within Gujarat, is on.


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