Saturday, October 11, 2008

Call of the big cat


Asia’s last population of free-ranging lions is confined to the Gir forests in Gujarat. Will they get a second home?

Space to grow: The concentration of lions in one sanctuary makes them more vulnerable in the event of a catastrophe.

Peering through my binoculars, the Indian Pitta was mesmerizing. But I was not to be sidetracked as I was all eager-eyes for the Lion King. The plan was to capture on camera one of the rarest carnivores in its last wild habitat, the Asiatic lion.

It was the month of June and the weather had withered much of the vegetation and the forest was tinder dry. Locating the free roaming lions in a territory of 1,400 sq km is a near impossible task. The sanctuary was to be closed for the ensuing rainy season and I was all the more keen not to miss meeting the lions in their own den. But they are not easy to encounter. The 300-odd lions are restless, ranging far beyond the official boundaries of the sanctuary. It was a problem of plenty in one little tight spot.
Lucky strike

I was, however, fortunate to sight a magnificent male with battle marks on his face on the very first trip. My first wild date with a powerful male was certainly not prosaic, as the reclining lion suddenly got up as if he remembered something and walked off with regal strides into the thickets of the jungle. I was exhilarated by my first encounter with a wild lion but immediately pondered how, when the British ruled India, lions were found roaming the forests around Delhi. Both lions and human beings evolved together over thousands of years, never intruding into each others’ area. Even if they did, they showed restraint as they saw no danger in such close encounters. Of all the big cats, the lions were the most tolerant to human beings.

But opponents and supporters of affirmative action cannot seem to arrive at a plan for the languishing Asiatic lion in its last lap of battle for survival. Slotted as "critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Asiatic lion seems stuck in the designated GIR sanctuary. In reality they have spilled throughout the porous Gir national park and spread over the vast terrain of the arid Saurastra in Gujarat. They want to reclaim the lost land, say some scientists while others vehemently oppose, saying they are dispersing because the capacity of Gir is over saturated.

“It was once the most visible and widespread big cats in the Indian subcontinent but today the lion is cornered and ‘confined’ in a little location. What a sad fate for the king of beasts that is considered to be the most handsome of all the five big Indian cats… while the sleek looking Cheetah has lost the race to survive in India. The tiger has its back to the wall, the snow leopard is just barely surviving in its snowy Himalayan abode and the leopard is much maligned in scattered pockets. All this is happening owing to heavy assaults on the habitats of big cats which is depleting fast due to ingress of massive human activities,” says B.C. Choudhry, a senior scientist with vast experience of over 30 years in handling vital conservation issues. He works with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehradun. Although designated a Sanctuary and a National Park, three highways and smaller roads crisscross Gir. So does a railway line, which scuttles at least six trains through the park each day. Temples within the sanctuary is another bane which draws thousands of pilgrims each year ‘trampling the tranquility’ of the environment. If that is not enough the parched lion habitat is a major fire risk that can literally stew the lions. With the entire wild population of Asiatic lions restricted to just one area, that population is highly susceptible to any kind of biological or man-made catastrophe. A major disaster can decimate the entire subspecies at a stroke. Comprehending the necessity of providing the Asiatic lion with an alternate home has become imperative, exclaim wildlife enthusiasts across the world.

With prudence, the Wildlife Institute of India has zeroed on the Kuno-Palpur Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh to be the second home of the Asiatic Lion. It has been nurtured for almost 10 years and nearly 15 crores have been spent to prepare the sanctuary. But successive Gujarat governments have successfully opposed the move, in spite of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and other Wildlife NGOs supporting the translocation.

“The recent airlifting of two tigers from Ranthambore National Park to Sariska National Park has given greater impetus to the translocation of big cats. It is not a very complicated task and they are capable of withstanding some amount of stress and strain. In the African jungles wild lions are regularly transported and resettled to different locations as per the prevailing wildlife conservation methods and the success rate is very high. Moreover it is not the first time big animals have been translocated in India. The one horned rhinoceros, despite opposition, was translocated in 1984 from the jungles of Assam to Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh. Today they are thriving and a valuable lesson has been learnt,” explains Y.V. Jhala a wildlife scientist with the WII who is presently researching the Asiatic lions in the wild.

Patience is a prudent virtue but endurance is not forever and so the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and the Madhya Pradesh Government have come forward to initiate the off-exhibit conservation breeding programme for the Asiatic lions at Kuno Sanctuary from the zoos located in Delhi and Hyderabad. “The chosen lions and lionesses have been tested for their genetic purity at the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) of Centre Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. Thereafter the MOU will be signed and it will be a privilege for the lions to be moved to an off-exhibit conservation breeding centre in the Kuno Sanctuary. Hopefully the third generation will begin their journey as free roaming lions in the so called second home in Madhya Pradesh,” clarifies Dr. B.K. Gupta of CZA, Delhi.
Increasing the chances

“India will be disgraced in all forums of Wildlife Conservation and Natural History Conventions if we cannot save Asia’s last population of free-ranging lions. There is no need for Gujarat government to part with the ownership of the Gir lions but they merely have to provide a small pride of lions as a long-term loan to be translocated. That’s all that is required and this sagacious conservation action will reap rich harvests as Gujarat’s magnanimous action will not only improve the conservation prospects for the lions in Gir but is also likely to result in another set of free-ranging lions in far off Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh,” declares Ravi Chellam, Director and Senior Fellow of ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment) in Bengaluru. He is one of the few who has trekked and observed the lions for four years and understands well their ecology and behaviour in the Gir forest.

Dr.Chellam goes on to add, “it’s like a life insurance policy; we do not take an insurance policy expecting to die but we do so to protect against unexpected events. Similarly a second home will provide protection against extinction for the free-ranging lions, which is an integral part of India’s unique and diverse natural heritage.”


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