Lion. The word conjures up an image of a wild creature that can harm human life and livestock. Lions are meant to be in the jungle, within a wildlife sanctuary like other wild animals. They may be the chief form of entertainment in circus shows, but they are not allowed to even reciprocate the applause they get for their performance from the audience, beyond the cage and ring.
Lions are believed to have been spotted north of the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the past. They gradually migrated towards Saurashtra and settled around Gir, in Gujarat, the only place in the world where Asiatic Lions are found now.
During British rule, only a dozen lions survived the heinous game of hunting. Later, the Nawab of Junagarh and subsequently, the Gujarat government, issued successive directives to punish hunting of lions.
The mythological and historical significance of this wild creature inspired Parimal Nathwani, wildlife lover, Rajya Sabha member and group president of Reliance Industries, to restore the lion to its glory, using his political and social clout. He has launched a virtual crusade to accord ‘national animal’ status to lions.
Nathwani has always stood for the cause of protection and survival of lions. Be it in his capacity as a top honcho of the corporate world or as a member of Parliament (MP), Nathwani has always upheld the cause of lions. He continues to press the Union government, both in Parliament and outside, to grant national animal status to lions through a legislation.
Nathwani has taken a vow to protect this rare species of the big cat family from becoming extinct. He contends that no other wild animal in the country deserves the honour that lions do. The lion has always been the king of the jungle. Neither the scriptures, nor ancient Indian history could ignore its importance. The king’s throne, for instance, was called ‘Simhasan’. Simply put, the king’s seat was considered as glorious as that of a lion.
Even India’s national emblem features four lions standing back to back —derived from sculptures built by King Ashoka, to portray the bold face of the nation.
The recent apex court order to translocate lions from Gir in Gujarat could not dampen Nathwani’s crusade to protect the lives of Asiatic lions. In his argument against the Supreme Court’s order to form a committee to recommend shifting of lions from Gir within six months, Nathwani says that Gir was the most suitable habitat for lions in the light of its geographical and environmental location. Moving lions out of Gir could deter ongoing efforts to save this rare species from extinction.
Nathwani contends that translocation of animals is never conducive to their well-being, because the changed environment and habitat is not always good for their health.
He rules out unfounded apprehensions about wildfires and epidemics in Gir. He claims that neither forest fires nor epidemics have occurred in the Gir sanctuary. In the light of the Supreme Court directive to the Centre forbidding importing cheetahs from Africa for the Kuna sanctuary, Nathwani has asked the apex court to also stop translocation of lions from Gir.
Nathwani was appalled when he learnt of the expenditure on conservation of Asiatic lions in Gujarat. In reply to a question posed by Nathwani in the Rajya Sabha, the ministry of environment and forests informed that in the past three years, Rs 34.39 crore had been released for conservation of Asiatic lions, while Rs 488.58 crore had been released under Project Tiger.
Nathwani expressed anguish at the gaping difference. Despite the fact that lions need more attention for preserving their population, the government has failed to pay proper attention to their conservation when sanctioning money for the purpose.
Nathwani has mobilised Rs 1 crore to cover about 1,300 potholes in the Gir enclosure. Potholes, meant for providing water to animals, were uncovered and small animals often fell into them and died.
Notwithstanding the criticism Nathwani has received for his obsessive love for lions, he has braved on. A section of wildlife activists reacted to his demand to confer national animal status for lions, saying it was a well-hatched conspiracy against tigers. In his defence, Nathwani says, “If I support lions, it does not mean that I hate other animals and I am against the national animal stature for tigers. I admire the ongoing efforts to save tigers across the country by the government and different NGOs as well. But my contention to support lions is that lions are found in a single state while tigers are found in many states. If we support lions by giving them the status of national animals, we can protect and promote this rare wild cat species the way we have done with tigers under specific sections of the law.”
Nathwani claims, “In fact, on several occasions, I have taken up the issue of safety and security of tigers too. Both animals are important to wildlife and need to be conserved with the best possible efforts. Tigers are found in 17 states and commendable efforts have been made to conserve them while lions are found only in Gir of Gujarat. I believe it’s time that lions are accorded the status of national animals and tigers should now dispense with the stature, as they have got enough projection over the decades. Like financial support lent by the Centre under Project Tiger, funds must be allocated for survival of Asiatic lions too. The government has spent Rs 488.58 crore under Project Tiger, while Rs 48.71 crore was spent for conservation of elephants. It has also released a total of Rs 206.09 crore under Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats in the past three years. But, incidentally, the Centre has sanctioned only Rs 34.39 crore for Gir in the past three years. I propose to declare every animal as a national animal by rotation after a considerable period of 20 years.”
He substantiates his demand, by pointing to the growing population of tigers with government support. He adds that a remarkable increase had been ensured in the population of tigers from 1,411 in 2008 to 1,706 in 2011, with substantial monetary support from the Centre and that it had now reached 2,226, which was half the world’s population of tigers. He seeks similar support for the protection of lions too from the Centre.
Nathwani’s proposal to replace tigers with lions as the national animal may not evoke a positive response from pro-tiger activists and those unlikely to accept the lion in place of the tiger. Nathwani says he would continue his struggle for the cause of lions, though, and even launch offensives against the system if necessary.
The author is a veteran journalist and has worked for several national dailies, magazines and channels.