Thursday, September 17, 2009

‘Pride’ at stake, Gir villagers with Gujarat on lions’ rehab

FRONT PAGE | Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rathin Das | Ahmedabad

Villagers, cattle-keepers and animal lovers in and around Gir National Park and Sanctuary have protested the Centre's bid to move its famous Asiatic lion to Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh even as Gujarat's top bureaucrats are in Delhi to oppose the proposal.

The State Forest Secretary, SK Nanda, and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Pradeep Khanna have gone to Delhi for a crucial meeting of the National Board of Wildlife which would decide on the contentious issue.

While the officials are expected to reiterate the Gujarat Government's stand that the Gir lions would not be shifted out to MP, people in and around the National Park and Sanctuary, too, are up in arms against the proposal.

The 1,412 square km Gir National Park and Sanctuary is the last and only natural habitat of the Asiatic lion the current population of which is estimated at around 360.

Fearing an epidemic might wipe out the entire species, a Delhi-based NGO had filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking shifting of some lions to Kuno Palpur forest area in Madhya Pradesh. The apex court has referred the matter to the National Board for Wildlife which has called for its Standing Committee meeting in Delhi on Wednesday.

People in the Gir forest area, who have lived in close proximity of the Asiatic lions for centuries, are agitated about the idea. For the last few days, barely literate people have been sending letters and e-mails to the Prime Minister and Environment Minister to register their protests against the move.

"We will not allow our lions to be taken to MP as they are our pride and honour," Gir Maldhari Sewa Samaj president Karsan Rabari told The Pioneer over phone from Sasan Gir, the last human habitation in the Gir forest area. Maldharis are traditional cattle-keepers who were evacuated from the Gir National Park when it was declared a protected area for wildlife three decades ago. Now, about 350 of these Maldhari families, along with their 3,000 buffaloes, are living in about 54 ness (hamlets) in the periphery of the National Park.

Karsan has sent e-mails to Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh saying that local people never posed dangers to the lions while the poachers (of 2007) came from Madhya Pradesh.

"Even a cub can be taken only over our dead body," said Allarakha Siddique, an activist and teacher with the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. Allarakha added that even the shifting process of lions can be dangerous for the big cats as they run for about three kilometres after being shot with the tranquiliser gun before falling unconscious.

Last time this was tried many years back, five lions died after falling into water bodies before losing consciousness. One lioness never regained consciousness and died due to the tranquiliser shot, Siddique said.

Other organisations which joined the protest include Maldhari Hak Rakshak Samiti, Maldhari Yuvak Sangharsh Samiti and Saurashtra Paryavaran Sangrakshan Samiti. The State's officials would argue at the Delhi meeting that the tigers and lions cannot live together and the tigers at Kuno Palpur forest were not properly protected leading to their vanishing act over the years. Moreover, Gujarat's forest officials plan to stress on the fact that the people of Kuno Palpur are not as favourably disposed to lions as the traditional inhabitants of Gir at the meet in Delhi, sources said.

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