Saturday, November 1, 2008

Twenty Lion Poachers Imprisoned by Indian Magistrate

JUNAGADH, Gujarat, India, October 28, 2008 (ENS) - Twenty people have been sentenced to three years imprisonment and fined for poaching endangered lions in the Gir Forest and trading in their parts, in a case that has no precedent in the judicial history of wildlife crime in India.

Inspector General of Police Keshav Kumar, who led the investigations, said, "This is the first known case in India in which the lions were hunted for trade."

The Court of P.K. Makuuana, I class magistrate, in Junagadh handed down the jail sentences on Thursday and in addition ordered each defendant to pay a fine of Rs 10,000, about US$200.

Public prosecutor J.M. Sakanpara said, "The accused were arrested for poaching six Asiatic lions from Gir and illegal possession of wildlife articles. Two lion claws were recovered from the main accused Kuntar Singh and Nanaka Singh during their arrest in April last year."

The remaining 18 defendants were arrested based on the information provided by Kuntar and Nanaka Singh. The accused remained in judicial custody throughout the trial, following denial of their bail plea by the High Court.

"The hunting was reportedly carried out on March 3 and March 29 last year. They had disclosed trade in body parts as the motive for hunting," said Sakanpara.

Saurabh Sharma, advocate of the Wildlife Trust of India, who provided legal assistance to the prosecution said, "This is a first-of-a-kind case in which so many people have been convicted at a time in a wildlife case."

"Even the duration of the trial was relatively expeditious for a wildlife case," said Sharma. "Within 18 months of the crime, the accused have been brought to justice."

Wildlife Trust of India Vice Chairman Ashok Kumar congratulated the authorities on the arrest and conviction of the defendants, saying, "This is a historic moment for all wildlife conservationists."

The Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica, once ranged throughout the coastal forests of northern Africa and from northern Greece across southwest Asia to eastern India. Today, the only living representatives of these lions occur in and around the Gir Forest.

The unique lions are threatened by poaching for bones, used in traditional Chinese medicine, and claws, used as amulets. Death from electrocution and from being trapped in open wells is also common, says Kumar.

Gir Forest is one of the largest compact tracts of dry deciduous forests in the semi-arid western part of India. Apart from being the only home of the last surviving natural gene pool of the Asiatic lion, it is the catchment area for seven major rivers and provides ecological security and water for the drought prone region of Saurashtra.

The Gujarat Forest Department explains that conservation measures like launching of the Gir Lion Sanctuary Project in the early 1970s, suspending logging operations and declaring the core area to be a national park, resettlement of maldharis families of nomadic herdsmen and the shifting of their livestock, and the payment of compensation in cases of livestock killing and human death by carnivores have had a "positive impact on the ecosystem."

The forest department has also established check posts, introduced a wireless communication network, and deployed vehicles and weapons to control the movement of people and livestock in the protected area.

Still, the Asiatic lions are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

"The Gir population is insecure for two reasons," A.J.T. Johnsingh, a wildlife expert with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore told the "Deccan Herald" newspaper in September. "Firstly, "the population has risen from a very low number leading to inbreeding and a genetically homozygous population. Reduced genetic diversity affects reproductive health of the species and increases mortality of the young."

Secondly, "an epidemic could wipe out the population," Johnsingh said.

On an average, 25 to 30 lion deaths have been reported every year for the past three years, yet the lion population in the Gir Forest is beyond the protected area's carrying capacity, wildlife experts say.

A survey conducted in 2005 estimated a population of 359 lions in and around the forest. By comparison a 1990 census counted some 221 adult lions living within the protected area, with 30 to 40 other lions living outside.

Since 2002, wildlife scientist Y.V. Jhala has radio collared 18 lions, to track their movement. "Radio collaring has shown," he told the newspaper, "lions have set up meta-populations outside Gir for want of space, or food."

Today, farmers grow mango, groundnuts and sugarcane adjacent to the Gir Forest, increasing land values and depleting groundwater and putting more pressure on the lion population.

In response to the movement of lions beyond the protected area, the Gujarat Forest Department is working to widen its protective circle. "Biotic pressures in the form of grazing, collection of other forest produce, vehicular traffic, tourism and pilgrims etc. are very high and require additional efforts in order conserve the biodiversity for posterity," the forest department says on its website.

Now, the Central Zoo Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority have prepared a breeding plan to strengthen the lion population. Pure-bred first generation Asiatic lions will be selected from different zoos to breed in a large natural enclosure at Kuno.

Herbivores will be supplied as prey so that second generation lions can develop hunting skills. Wildlife experts believe that the third generation lions will be fit to survive in the wild.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.


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