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CIMA Gallary

Gujarat puts ‘pride’ of lions at risk of disease and natural disaster to remain ‘world’s envy’

Gir, July 9: A peacock shrieks. A monkey scrambles higher into the fire-coloured canopy of a kesudo (palash) tree. And an Asiatic lion pads across the dusty earth of Gujarat’s Gir sanctuary, its only refuge from the modern world and where it has been rescued from near-extinction.

A century ago, fewer than 50 remained. Today more than 400 fill the park and sometimes wander into surrounding villages and farmland.

But the lions’ precarious return is in jeopardy. Experts warn their growing numbers could be their undoing. Crowded together, they are more vulnerable to disease and natural disaster. There is little new territory for young males to claim, increasing chances for inbreeding, territorial conflict or males killing the young.

Conservationists agree these lions need a second home fast, and far from Gir. Government-backed experts in the 1990s settled on a hilly sanctuary called Kuno in Madhya Pradesh, where lions historically roamed with tigers. Millions were spent preparing the park but Gujarat rejected the plan and no lions were sent.

Now, the matter has reached the Supreme Court.

“We are the only ones who have lions. We have managed without interference until now,” Gujarat environment secretary S.K. Nanda said proudly in his office, decorated with lion posters reading: “Gujarat’s pride; World’s envy.”

“Can we humans be arbiters of where these lions should live? Should we move the mountains and the rivers too?” Nanda said. “If the lions want to move, let them move on their own.”

Asiatic lions were once dominant in forests from Morocco and Greece across West Asia to eastern India, but the last of them outside Gujarat was gunned down in Iran in 1942. Those in Gujarat got a reprieve: a princely ruler banned hunting of the few dozen lions left in 1901.

The state created the 1,400sqkm Gir sanctuary, with constant patrols against poachers, cultivated grasslands for the lions’ prey: spotted deer and blue-hued antelope, and a veterinary hospital.

A few dozen trackers keep count of the animals and fill artificial water holes.

Protecting the lions has been popular with locals, who consider the predators docile when not harassed. Farmers welcome them in their fields. Newly married couples visit them for good luck. Families break park rules to picnic by Gir’s streams, unaware or unconcerned that they are water sources for the big cats.

“The lion is like a god to us,” peanut farmer Sadik Hasein Chotiyara said. “If the lion attacks, it’s because that person made a mistake.”

But the local people in general are more open to sharing the lions with other states than Gujarat’s leaders are. State officials insist that lion attacks on humans don’t happen. Nonsense, say scientists and residents.

Research indicates confrontations are increasing as the growing cat population has pushed one in four lions into new mini-sanctuaries by riverbeds that snake through farms and villages. Most of the estimated 15 lion attacks each year happen outside the park. In April, a lion killed a 35-year-old man who was reportedly pelting it with stones.

Experts say Gujarat officials can best show their devotion to the lions by letting some go. The lions urgently need a second sanctuary, they say — one outside Gujarat to ensure genetic diversification and protection from disease or natural disaster.

Evidence suggests the gene pool is dangerously shallow, meaning a disease that affects one Gir lion could quickly affect many. Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park saw a third of its 3,000 lions wiped out in 1994 by canine distemper, likely brought by tourists’ dogs. Decades earlier, Tanzania’s Ngorogoro Crater lions were decimated when rains spawned swarms of blood-sucking flies that left the cats with festering sores.

But Gujarat dismisses the idea that disease or calamity could pose a threat to the lions. To give the animals more space, the state recently opened a small second sanctuary on its coast. Conservationists say the two populations are still too close together.

To address gene pool concerns, Gujarat is breeding them in a zoo, but conservationists say it’s ridiculous to think those could be a substitute for lions raised in the wild.

“If they really cared about the species’ survival, they would want this second home,” said conservation biologist William Laurance of Australia’s James Cook University.

The Centre and Madhya Pradesh have already prepared the second lion home in Kuno, relocating villages and hiring specialists to build up a prey base for the cats. In 2006, an ecologist on the project filed a lawsuit challenging how such a plan could be enacted but no lions ever sent.

The Supreme Court is deliberating on the messy dispute and could, if it wants, resolve it within weeks. “People would never forgive us if we lose these beautiful cats,” said Faiyaz Khusdar, the ecologist who filed the lawsuit.

Gujarat doubts that other states will keep lions safe. And here, they echo global concern.

Environmentalists increasingly question India’s commitment to its endangered wildlife, including half the world’s remaining tigers, its only black tigers, and more than half the world’s Asiatic elephants and one-horned rhinos.

More than 40 animal and plant species have gone extinct in a half-century and 134 more are critically endangered. Poaching and poisoning are rampant. A recent study in the journal Biological Conservation counted 114 species being poached, including elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, and tigers for body parts used in Chinese medicine.

Many sanctuaries have been powerless to stop the killings. There are not enough rangers, and some may take bribes. While Gujarat’s lions have been spared the worst, they still face the same threats.

A reported 34 of Gujarat’s lions were poached in 2007. Another 10 were hunted in 2009 by criminals. Tigers also came under attack that year, disappearing from two sanctuaries in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

“They are not able to conserve their own wildlife; how can they protect ours?” said R.L. Meena, a Gujarat district wildlife warden. He insisted the state would defy any court order not in its favour. “They will not take our lions.”

Some conservationists accuse Gujarat of using its hold on the lions as a tourism draw. Gujarat fires the same allegation at states willing to take lions in.

The Centre supports moving lions to Kuno but notes that Indian wildlife laws leave decisions to the 28 states. “We will not interfere,” Union environment secretary Tishya Chatterjee said.

But New Delhi has intervened to protect wildlife before. It launched a nationwide tiger-protection project in the 1970s. In a situation similar to the lions, it ordered Assam to contribute rhinos for a second population to boost the gene pool in faraway Uttar Pradesh.

Environmentalists say the need for the Centre to protect species is not declining but rising as India’s population and economy soar.

“Conservation in India is not about managing animals any more,” said Divyabhanusinh Chavda of the World Wildlife Fund in India. “It’s about managing people.”