Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Second home for Asiatic lions in Madhya Pradesh

Even as Sariska welcomes tigers from Ranthambore, Kuno Palpur sanctuary in MP is gearing up to provide a second home to Asiatic lions from Hyderabad's zoo. Gujarat had refused to part with any of its lions from Gir National Park..

CJ: roopmati ,

THE FUTURE of Asiatic lions may finally be secure thanks to the efforts of Madhya Pradesh government and Hyderabad zoo authorities. Even as Sariska welcomes its new arrivals of tigers from Ranthambore, the sanctuary at Kuno Palpur in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh is gearing up to provide a second home to Asiatic lions from Hyderabad’s zoo. Talks are also being held with Delhi zoo to get some more lions for the new lion sanctuary. This, in the face of Gujarat’s refusal to part with any of its lions from the Gir National Park. Gir is the only place in the world to have Asiatic lions in the wild.

“The sanctuary at Kuno Palpur would have a sizable number of big cats in the next 10-15 years,” hopes PB Gangopadhyay, principal chief conservator of forests, Madhya Pradesh. “A special team of veterinary experts would be appointed to take care of the new inmates,” he added. According to sources on the forest department, Kuno Palpur, with its vast grasslands and sprinkling of trees and low shrubs, provides the perfect habitat for lions, which move in prides of up to 14 animals and prefer grasslands with shrubs. They point out abundant water supply, better grass cover to support the prey base and a minimal effect upon human settlements were the some of the reasons for choosing Kuno Palpur over other sanctuaries.

The need to find a second home for Asiatic lions was being felt for quite some time. The 359 strong lion population of Gir requires an area of 2,500 square kilometres against the present area of 1,800 square kilometres. Shrinking habitat increases the possibility of inbreeding among the lions. Inbreeding leads to infertility and a decrease in genetic variation that in turn results in greater chances of catching infection. A widespread infection could quite easily wipe out the entire population of lions in Gir.

Infection is not a remote possibility. With declining vulture population and consequent increase in the number of dogs, canine distemper is not unlikely. 1,000 out of some 3,000 lions were killed by canine distemper in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania in 1993-94. Serengeti’s lion population was distributed over about 20,000 square kilometers. The chances of canine distemper spreading to the whole population in Gir remain alarmingly high.

There are other reasons. Increase in human population has been putting consistent pressure on the animals in recent years. Traditionally, the Maldharis share the forest with the lions. There are villages too, within the forest. Today the human population inside the forest stands at 7,500 with 14,000 cattle. This leads to direct friction between the animals and man. Incidents of attacks and deaths by the predators have seen noticeable rise in recent times. As though it was not enough, a temple inside the park means every year over 80,000 pilgrims blunder into the park much to the dismay of conservationists and the animals.

Three highways run through the park and a railway line that has a traffic of at least six trains every day. Although the roads are closed at night, there is increasing pressure on the forest department to open them up. It may not be long before the roar of trucks shatter the peace of the only home of the Asiatic lions in the world.

Quite naturally the need for a second home was felt and the help of the home state of Asiatic lions sought. But, Gujarat flatly refuses to cooperate. The refusal comes not just from the government but, from conservationists too. The reasons appear untenable. Gujarat officials say Madhya Pradesh government failed to take the Gujarat state government and the villagers in and around Gir into confidence when it came up with the proposal a few decades ago. Besides, poachers in Madhya Pradesh were a threat to Gir lions if they are shifted there.

Over the last two years 80 lions have died in Gir. Of them, 52 died from natural causes, one because of an accident, six due to electrocution, 13 fell in a well and nine lions died because of poaching in the protected area of Gir and surrounding habitats of Gujarat. Interestingly, in February this year, Gujarat’s minister of state for environment and forests, S Regupathy told the Rajya Sabha, investigation shows that a farmer laid live wire fencing his agricultural land to prevent crop damage from wild herbivores.

Clearly this does not paint the picture of a safe haven for what is until now the only home for the Asiatic lions.

Meanwhile, a Delhi based Non Government Organisation has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in favour of transferring some of Gir’s lions to Kuno Palpur. The matter has reached the Supreme Court. But even as the two states fight the legal battle it is heartening to note that the future of Asiatic lions have not been left to chance. They will have found a second home in Madhya Pradesh and may have to travel a bit further to reach Kuno from Hyderabad.


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