Thursday, March 11, 2010

72 Asiatic lions dead in last two years in India's Gir Forests.

Thu, 11 Mar 2010 08:36:00 GMT By : M G Srinath

New Delhi – The western Indian state of Gujarat, home of the majestic Asiatic lions, has admitted that 72 lions had died in the Gir sanctuary during the last two years mainly due to “natural causes”.

The state government told lawmakers in the state legislature in Gandhinagar on Wednesday, that there were only 291 lions left in the Gir sanctuary as on December 31, 2009. Among them were 100 lionesses and 123 cubs in a park spread over 1,400 sq km of forest area.

The government said 71 lions died due to natural causes while one was killed in poaching in the only abode of Asiatic lions, in the last two years.

Conservationists have long complained that Gir forests was overcrowded and some lions need to be shifted to a sanctuary in neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh.

But the Gujarat government has turned down the offer of the federal government to swap lions for tigers. The state's plea is that it was not going to share its biggest tourist attraction.

More than 13,500 open wells in Gir pose a threat to lions, many of which have been killed after falling into them, the Times of India newspaper reported..

Many lion deaths in Gir have occurred from fights between the animals. "There are several deaths because of territorial fights over lionesses," says conservationist Sanat Chavan.

However, some officials say though lions are dying in large numbers, the total population is higher than what the government gave the assembly. Principal chief conservator of forests Pradeep Khanna told the Times of India newspaper that the data was only about lions in the protected area.

According to the state government, there are currently 68 lions, 100 lionesses and 123 cubs in the entire Gir area spread over three districts of Junagadh, Amreli and Bhavnagar.

Giving details of the measures initiated by the authorities to protect the endangered wild animal, the Forest Department said security staff has been increased and they have been provided with latest communication equipment.

The department has stepped up patrolling in the dense forest and traffic within the protected areas has been regulated.

The Gujarat state rejected twice last month renewed offers of 'you give us your lions and we will give you tigers' swap offer.

The thumbs-down from the state government came after the Minister for Forests and Environment Jairam Ramesh had made the swap offer to transport tigers from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to the Gir National Park of Gujarat.

Gujarat had also had told the Indian Supreme Court last month that it will not part with its lions for their relocation.

"There is no way Gujarat can part with its lions. The state has shown a successful model of conservation of lions and therefore it does not want to part with it," the official said.

"We have developed expertise in not only conservation of the wild cats through community protection, but also in wildlife crime management, the unnamed official has been quoted as saying.

The Gir sanctuary in Gujarat is the last surviving bastion of the Asiatic lion — a source of pride for the state, but also a source of worry for many conservationists who feel that the lions' habitat must be expanded.

“If you look at the map of India, every major state has a tiger reserve except Gujarat,” . Ramesh said on Tuesday. “I have written to the Gujarat Chief Minister and suggested that the National Tiger Conservation Authority will work to reintroduce tigers in Gujarat. I hope that will create the incentive for him to part with his lions,” he added.

Despite his assertion that the lions of Gujarat “continue to be a big headache for us,”. Ramesh has praised the Gujarat model of wildlife management where there was community protection for wildlife”.

Meanwhile, the Gujarat government has said it is procuring high-tech gadgets like GPS, automated sensor grid and night vision devices to track lions and keep poachers at bay at the Gir National Park.

"We are in the process of introducing these high-tech gadgets in the Gir forest for lion conservation," Principal chief conservator of forest (Wildlife), Pradeep Khanna has been quoted as saying in media reports.

The state also plans to conduct census of Asiatic lions at the Gir Sanctuary in April this year.

"We will conduct the census at the Asiatic Lions Sanctuary at Gir in April," according to Khanna.

The lion census is conducted every five years and the previous one was conducted at Gir in 2005. In the last census, a total of 359 lions -- plus or minus 10 -- were reported.

"I don't know the exact number of lions which died after the last counting, but 30 to 35 deaths a year is absolutely natural," according to Khanna.

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