Thursday, June 30, 2016

Illegal safari earns the lion’s share of tourists at Gir

Forest officials in collusion with locals set up illegal 'lion shows' at Gujarat's Gir sanctuary for tourists, who shell out money to get the thrill of watching the big cats from close quarters

Indian cricketer Ravindra Jadeja courted controversy when he clicked selfies with lions on a safari with his wife and friends at Gir sanctuary this week. A probe has been ordered, while two range forest officers who were in one of the photographs now face action. But, what has continued unnoticed is forest officials joining hands with locals in Gir to set up illegal 'lion shows' for tourists.

As Khushboo Gujarat Ki spreads far and wide, the number of tourists visiting Gir sanctuary has touched record highs. The 14th Asiatic Lion Census 2015, conducted in May 2015, put the lion population at 523 (up 27 per cent from the previous census in 2010). This has peaked tourist curiosity. They want to be up close with the Asiatic lion. As many as 1.5 lakh tourists have visited Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary this year. With the monsoon set to hit Gujarat and the breeding season for lions set to begin, the sanctuary has been closed from June16 for four months.

Taking advantage of the huge number of tourists, some locals who are hand-in-glove with the forest officials gather the tourists at a set location through their guides. Lion trackers then goad the big cat out of the bushes and herd them to the location where the tourists have gathered for the 'show'. So, you have lions right in front of you to click photographs and add to your collection.

On one hand, the Asiatic lion has come into conflict with humans after its territory expanded to 22,000 sq-km across eight of the nine districts in Saurashtra, while on the other, illegal lion shows have become a regular affair inside the sanctuary to lure tourists and make quick bucks.

With a proper guide, jeep and driver, it gets easier for tourists to sight lions the way they wish. Three groups of trackers assigned by the forest department keep an eye on lion movements inside the forest area. These trackers know where lions are. They inform the guides, who collect the tourist jeeps at one place. Once the tourists assemble, the tracker goes into the bushes and, by making noises and using his stick, forces the lions out. Tourists get to see the king of the jungle from close quarters and are quick to photograph them.

Current bookings are fully online, but tourists need not worry. If a tourist misses booking online, he/she can approach a local around Sinh Sadan, where permits are issued. The local will take the tourist inside the park, show the lion and charge extra for managing the show.

Mirror had a firsthand experience of the safari last week. Tourist jeeps were asked to gather at a spot, and then, one of the three forest officials went inside the forest on his bike. Soon, a lioness and her cubs were seen coming out from the same direction; they sat next to the forest road, close to the jeeps.

Local activist Bhikubhai Batawala from Khambha confirmed the activity."I am aware of this. It may not be forest guards who facilitate such activities all the time. Like fake police, there are fake forest guards as well inside the sanctuary at times," he insisted. Principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) J A Khan seemed unaware of the issue. "I will check and take necessary action, if needed," Khan said.

According to environmental activist Vikram Trivedi, "It is not proper to force the lions out of the bushes with different sounds. It disturbs them and they get hostile with human beings. Not just the full-grown lions, even the cubs get hostile. Eventually human-animal conflict situations occur."

The lion is not an animal that moves from one place to another; it marks its territory. "When trackers push them from one place to other, they irritate the entire tribe," said Trivedi.

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