Saturday, May 31, 2008

Gujarat's Pride?

Will some of Gir's prized Asiatic Lions find home in MP?

Debarshi Dasgupta

Why Gir Lions Are Sacred
A central proposal to move some lions to Kuno in MP from Gir has been in limbo for over two decades

Gujarat has been resisting since the lions are widely seen as the pride for Gujarat

Distributing the lions, feel experts, will reduce risks from an epidemic or natural calamity at one spot

Now MP and the Centre want to introduce some zoo lions into Kuno

The Supreme Court is hearing a pil pleading the court to order Gujarat to part with some lions

The dispute between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh over sharing wild Asiatic lions has taken a new turn.

The possession of the only surviving wild Asiatic lions has been a matter of pride for the Gujarat government.

With the Narendra Modi government rejecting an ambitious federal proposal to relocate some of lions from Gujarat's Gir sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh is now going ahead with transferring zoo-bred animals to Kuno—where a special habitat will be readied. Conservationists say this may have disastrous consequences since the lions will have to be adapted to the wild by humans and their offspring, if any, then prepared to be released. Brij Kishor Gupta of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA), however, says: "It's the second or third generation of these parent lions that we can think of releasing into the wild. This will take about 10 years."

Three genetically 'pure' Asiatic lions, two females and a male, have been identified to be moved from zoos in Delhi and Hyderabad, once the facility at Durandi in the Kuno sanctuary is ready. P.B. Gangopadhyay, principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF), wildlife, with the MP government, claims this is an interim measure. "Hopefully, Gujarat will one day understand our position that relocation is in the interest of the safety of the lion. Even the National Board of Wildlife has strongly endorsed our stand," he says. The stakes are high for MP as it has already spent Rs 15 crore to prepare Kuno and relocate over 1,500 families from the area.

Gir is home to 360 of the last surviving wild Asiatic lions. The proposal to shift some of these animals to a new location was first mooted in 1995 to ensure the lions have better chances of survival in case of a natural calamity, such as an epidemic. The outbreak of Canine Distemper Virus in Serengeti, Kenya, in 1994 which killed 30 per cent of the lions, typifies the kind of risk that exists. However, Gujarat's argument against the relocation plan is that the population of lions in the state has gone up from 327 in 2001 and that the Kuno sanctuary is not suitable enough.

Meanwhile, last month, in cooperation with the CZA, the Madhya Pradesh government demarcated an area in Kuno to house the "off-display conservation breeding centre" for zoo lions. But the move to 'rehabilitate' zoo lions in the wild has many critics. Says Asad Rahmani, director of Bombay Natural History Society: "The whole idea of conservation will be defeated, more so because we have a surviving wild population. It is a pity that politics is determining the outcome of such a prestigious project. Animals don't recognise political boundaries but only those that are ecological and Kuno is well within the ecological boundary of the Asiatic lion."

Adds Raghunandan Singh Chundawat, a conservationist specialising in big cats: "These zoo-bred lions are used to human presence and their offspring will require training to adapt to the wild and hunt. But what is the guarantee that these lions will not at some point stray into conflicts with humans for easy prey?"

The Supreme Court is hearing a pil seeking the relocation of wild lions filed in 2006 by Faiyaz Khudsar, a trustee with the Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India. "The people were relocated around Kuno to make way for wild lions.

Would it be ethical to introduce zoo lions instead?" asks Khudsar. While Gujarat is not legally bound to hand over its lions, Ritwick Dutta, the lawyer for the petitioner, argues, "Wildlife was kept a concurrent subject so that the centre can direct a state to carry out a task in the interest of protecting endangered species such as the Asiatic lion."

Pradeep Khanna, PCCF, wildlife, with the government of Gujarat, insists relocation does not recognise the successful conservation efforts of the state. "This proposal continues despite our success in tackling poaching and our ongoing efforts to repair wells that trap the lions. Even the local people of Gir take pride in conserving the lions and have paid a price in terms of losing some of their cattle," he says.

Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, in their affidavits submitted to the Supreme Court, have argued over various points such as whether the prey base in Kuno is adequate for lions, whether lions and tigers can coexist or if the lions will be adequately protected from poachers in Kuno. However, many conservationists argue that Gujarat's reasons for refusing to hand over some lions are not ecological but more political and economic in nature. The possession of the only surviving wild population of Asiatic lions has been an emotive issue for long in the state and the official press releases portray them as the 'pride of Gujarat'. It is common to find local politicians who bristle at talk of moving the lions.

Achyut Yagnik, honorary secretary of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad, says the possession of the lions has become a 'political legacy' that the Modi government has inherited from Shankersinh Vaghela. "When this proposal first came up, people from Saurashtra (where Gir is located) campaigned to retain ownership of the lions. The people of Gujarat take great pride in these lions who have a special place in local folk traditions," he says. The sanctuary attracts over a lakh of visitors annually. Revenues from Gir touched Rs 1.37 crore in 2007.

All eyes are now on the Supreme Court. Will it settle the dispute and end Gujarat's 'monopoly' over the Asiatic lion? Or will Madhya Pradesh have to continue to make do with lions in captivity? The fate of the conservation programme virtually rests on the apex court ruling.


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