Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pride of Gujarat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anuradha Dutt

The Asiatic lion is safe and sound in Gir

Gujarat’s Gir forest today is the sole and last bastion of the Asiatic lion, with the carnivores numbers till April, 2005, based on sightings being 359. Unlike tiger conservation, the attempt to protect lions and increase their numbers is considered a success story as poaching is relatively scarce in the sanctuary. The last reported case was in April 2007, when eight lions were killed in three incidents. By contrast, in 2009, reveal sources, about 120 tiger deaths were recorded in India. Of these, at least one fourth were perpetrated by poachers. So far as poaching of lions is concerned, it is reported to have occurred in response to the great demand for derivatives such as medicines and charms from tiger bones in countries such as China. Lion bones, apparently, are passed off as tiger bones by traders in animal parts.

In the wake of the poaching episode, the Gujarat Government set up a task force to review security arrangements. This body recommended the use of high-tech gadgets such as GPS, automated sensor grid and night vision devices. The GPS-based system would facilitate surveillance, animal tracking and tracking of vehicles entering the sanctuary; and the sensors would help in classifying and locating intrusions. Night vision devices would assist mobile patrolling squads spot poachers by enhancing surveillance capability in the dark.

Gujarat’s success at conservation is especially notable because the Gir forest is the sole habitat of the king in India and the world. Its rival has 41 sanctuaries, big and small, reserved for it, under Project Tiger, which commenced in 1973 as a centrally sponsored scheme. The project was upgraded into a statutory body, National Tiger Conservation Authority, on September 4, 2006, for a period of three years. The 11th Five Year Plan allots Rs 600 crore for tiger conservation. This apart, international conservation agencies have since long been focussing on tigers and handsomely funding conservation efforts here and elsewhere. But despite the frenetic global involvement with tiger conservation, the number of the big cats, as per Minister of State for Forests and Environment Jairam Ramesh, has declined to about 1,000 from 1,411 in the last census, conducted four-five years ago.

The Gujarat Government, therefore, deserves to be commended for managing to safeguard lions and increase their population. In the early part of the last century, there were 15 or so lions. Trophy hunters, including colonial administrators and their native minions, had almost finished them off. The Nawab of Junagadh intervened and declared the forest and its environs to be protected. However, the Sasan-Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary formally came into being in 1965. The success of the Narendra Modi-headed Government’s conservation efforts can be gauged from the fact that lion numbers rose from 337 in the 2001 census to 359 in April 2005. Noted conservationist HS Panwar, former Director, Project Tiger, credits this achievement to the fact that the State Government of Gujarat is seized of the matter right from the Chief Minister to field formations of forest and police department. As for tiger conservation, he says, that if all concerned States address tiger conservation with the same seriousness, surely tiger future will be far better assured.

In September 2008, Mr Modi expressed the wish that the Centre set up a Project Lion, on the lines of Project Tiger. Senior officials of the State Forest Department were ordered by him to draft such a plan, which would be submitted to the Centre. He also demanded Central funds for the Gir sanctuary and development of its environs. Instead, a plan has been formulated by the Centre and the Madhya Pradesh Government to relocate many of the Gir lions to the 344-km Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Some of the reasons cited are over-crowding in Gir, and the threat of an epidemic, rendered more fearful by the supposed genetic weakness of Asiatic lions.

But the Gujarat Government has resolved to resist this move on the grounds that the conditions in Kunmo-Palpur sanctuary are not suitable for lions; and that territorial clashes between tigers and lions are bound to occur in the event of some of the Gir big cats being shifted to Madhya Pradesh. Litigation on the issue is currently underway, with the matter being heard by the Supreme Court, which wants the concerned parties Gujarat Government on one side, and the Centre and Madhya Pradesh Government on the other to resolve the issue amicably. On its part, the former is determined not to part with its lions.

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