Just when Disney’s live-action extravaganza – The Lion King – roars in a cinema near you, the real lion kings of India are in desperate need of wider living spaces.
However, the Gujarat government believes that the state is the safest haven for the Asiatic Lions and has no qualms in disclosing that 222 lions perished in and around Gir Wildlife Sanctuary between June 2017 and May 2019.
The State government attributes the alarming death rate to a high ‘cub’ mortality rate, which the foresters, in the state, claim is normal.
Gujarat forest minister Ganpat Vasava told the State Assembly, on Tuesday, 16 July, that 82 lions, including 30 cubs, died between June 2017 and May 2018 while the number of deaths stood at 140, including 60 cubs, for the June 2018 – May 2019 period.
"“While 199 deaths occurred because of natural causes, such as infection and ailments, 23 deaths have been attributed to unnatural causes.” " - Ganpat Vasava, Gujarat Forest Minister
Vasava did not mention whether the 34 lions that perished due to Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), Babesia, Streptococcal bacteria and Gram-negative bacilli infections are included in the 222 deaths.
However, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Dinesh Kumar Sharma (IFS), told The Quint that, 222 lion deaths does include deaths due to infection and illnesses.
As the big cat population in Gujarat grows in leaps and bounds, the state government continues to avoid the subject of lions’ translocation.
The Translocation Conundrum
In April 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the translocation of lions to Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, yet six years later, the Gujarat government continues to openly violate the order.
"“There are International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines that need to be adhered by Madhya Pradesh. We simply cannot push lions there. The SC order is based on the fulfillment of the IUCN guidelines and once they are met the government will take a decision,” " - Dinesh Kumar Sharma (IFS), Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Gujarat
Meanwhile, MP-based wildlife activist Ajay Shankar Dubey, who has filed a petition with the Supreme Court regarding the translocation of lions, told The Quint that he is approaching the Apex Court with a fresh petition.
"“The Gujarat government’s biggest issue with regards to translocation was that Kuno is a wildlife sanctuary and has limited land and food resources for the lions. However, the area of Kuno has been increased by another 350 sq kms and now it is no longer a wildlife sanctuary but a national park, that is spread across over 700 sq kms. Yet, the Gujarat government is being lackadaisical towards the Supreme Court order.” " - Ajay Shankar Dubey, Wildlife Activist, Madhya Pradesh
According to Dubey, Kuno can hold up to 40 lions within its boundaries. Yet, the dialogue between the state and the centre is going in circles.
"“I have filed the case before the SC, however, until the state (MP) doesn’t become a party in the matter nothing will happen. The previous MP government was run by BJP and it almost felt as if both states have come to an agreement not to translocate lions, because they did not want to anger Modiji. But this time I feel things are changing with the new government.”" - Ajay Shankar Dubey, Wildlife Activist, Madhya Pradesh
According to Dubey, the MP government has cleared tribal population within the national park to make way for the lions. The tribes were promised employment once the national park becomes operational, with the introduction of lions.
“In all 29 villages of the Saharia tribe were cleared from Kuno. But have been cheated as they have lost their traditional livelihood. It is imperative that the lions are brought in, to protect the tribes. I am getting around 4,000 children from the Saharia tribe to sign a letter to PM Narendra Modi, so that he takes action,” Dubey added.
Government Believes Lions are Safe in Gujarat
Gir Forest National Park is a wildlife sanctuary established to protect Asiatic lions. As per the last census carried out in 2015, the Gir forest had 523 big cats. The state government had recently said that the number of lions has gone up to 600.
However, the number could be much higher as not all lions are accounted for. According to wildlife conservationist and member of the National Board of Wildlife, HS Singh, over 50 per cent of lions in Gujarat live outside the protected zones.
"“In the lion census, foresters adopt the ‘seen, confirmed & counted’ methodology. It is quite possible that a good chunk of lions that wander outside the protected zones of Gir were missed in the census back in 2015. This would mean, four years ago, the population was well over 600 lions and now the population could be well over 700. But this is a testament to the conservation efforts carried out by the state and it should be lauded.”" - HS Singh, wildlife conservationist and member of the National Board of Wildlife
According to Singh, the human-lion interaction in Gujarat is quite positive as several villages surrounded by lion population have accepted the big cats as their neighbours.
“You see, with mechanised farming, farmers are discarding their bulls in favour of cows. This adds to the lions appetite of blue bulls (Nilgai) which are quite abundant in the state. Let’s not forget that lions do not attack humans as frequently as leopards do. In a year there will be around two lion-related human fatalities while leopard-based human fatalities in a year can be as high as 10,” Singh added.
In his reply to the assembly, Vasava listed various preventive measures to protect lions, such as building parapets around wells situated near the forest, fencing railway tracks, construction of speed-breakers on roads passing through the sanctuaries, and continuous patrolling.
The Forest department recently purchased 75 radio collars to monitor the lion’s movements. A hi-tech monitoring centre was also set up at Sasan-Gir, and a dedicated ambulance service was launched recently to treat the injured or ill big cats.
The state government has allocated Rs 123 crore this year for conservation of lions which will be spent on building a dedicated hospital and a research lab for big cats along with a CCTV network and a GPS-based surveillance system.
Vasava also said that as many as 74 persons have been arrested in the last two years for organising illegal lion shows in the forest area. In order to reduce concentration of tourists in Sasan-Gir, the headquarter of Gir National Park, the state government is planning three safari parks in Narmada, Surat and Dang districts.
(With Inputs from PTI)
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