Despite judicial activism to shift Gujarat’s lions to other states, there is no relenting. As the situation turns grim, incidents of man-animal conflict are rising in the state’s over-populated
By RK Misra in Ahmedabad
IT has been a losing judicial battle. Not surprising when we see the regionalism of a former chief minister who magnanimously gifts lions to a distant country (The Czech Republic) but stalls when it comes to a neighboring state. Though courts have ruled that Gujarat must part with some of the Asiatic lions housed in Gir sanctuary and shift them to Kuno Palpur in MP, the state has made every attempt to delay the departure. It fell on the Supreme Court to rule on April 15, 2013, that “no state organization or person can claim ownership or possession of wild animals in forests. Animals in the wild are the property of the nation for which no state can claim ownership and the states duty is to protect wildlife and conserve it.” The judgment directed that the lions be translocated to Kuno Palpur in MP.
The urgent need for shifting lions presently bunched in one area—Gir—has been recommended by numerous panels. This is largely because the number of Asiatic lions, once found widely in West and South Asia, had dwindled to a paltry 18 animals in 1893, but sprang back due to strenuous conservation efforts. As per the 2015 lion census, the number now stands at 523 but this could be in jeopardy.
The rising population has created its own problems. After charting lion kills and the compensation paid to farmers, it has been concluded that the lions have long overshot their sanctuary and their imprint is now visible over 1,500 villages in a 20,000 sq km area. This is spread over three contiguous districts—Junagadh, Amreli and Bhavnagar. This is almost double the 10,500 sq km area recorded in the 2010 census. With the sanctuary over-populated and lions spilling over outside, incidents of man-animal conflict have been on the increase.
A recalcitrant Gujarat, however, refuses to give-in and the principal onus of this rests with Modi, who waged a legal battle and turned the lions into an emotive issue of Gujarati pride. However, it has been a losing judicial battle.
After the Supreme Court ruled against Gujarat in April 2013, the state government was back in the apex court in May with a review petition. It was dismissed in October. In February 2014, Gujarat was back in the Supreme Court, this time with a curative petition. In August 2014, a three-judge bench, comprising the then chief justice RM Lodha and Justices HL Dattu and TS Thakur dismissed this.
ROOTING FOR GUJARAT
But Gujarat was still not prepared to give up. There are two petitions still pending before the Supreme Court. One was filed in February last year by Rajkot-based NGO, Wildlife Conservation Trust, taking the plea that certain facts were not brought before the apex court. Another petition has been filed by Priyavrat Gandhi, a member of the Gujarat State Wildlife Board in May 2014. He contended that Kuno Palpur is a key corridor for tigers of Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan as they travel to Madhav National Park in MP.
With Modi becoming PM, Gujarat’s position on the National Board for Wildlife has been bolstered. Also, former Gujarat forest officer HS Singh and serving forest officer Bharat Pathak, who heads the Gandhinagar-based Gujarat Ecological, Education and Research Foundation, are both staunchly anti-translocation.
Ironically, in all this hullabaloo, it was the Gujarat High Court which emerged as the real protector of the lion. Under Modi, Gujarat undertook a high-profile tourism campaign, engaging the services of film star Amitabh Bachchan to lead the advertising blitz with the catchline:“Kuchh din to guzaro Gujarat mein”. While the campaign was a roaring success and tourists descended in hordes to the lion sanctuary, the environs were woefully lacking in facilities.
Overnight, all sorts of illegal establishments sprouted, invading the privacy of the lions.
Illegal lion shows and night safaris led to large-scale upheaval in the pristine jungle environment, leading to increased lion attacks as well as their deaths.
In a written reply in the Gujarat Assembly, state forest minister Mangubhai Patel admitted on March 10, 2015, that 124 lions and 135 leopards had died during the last two years in Saurashtra. This figure does not include the 10 lions which died during flash floods in June this year.
Dismayed locals turned to the Gujarat High Court for help. Taking cognizance of an anonymous letter, it forced the state government to act after it ordered the sealing of 66 illegal structures operating with immunity on the edges of the sanctuary.
Similarly, 67 clandestine mining units operating in the area were ordered to shut down. Judicial intervention also ensured that lion safaris, which had soared to 90, were down to less than half.
Rajiv Katyayan, a specialist in corporate tours, says: “It will auger well if Gujarat, which is new to the tourism game, learns from the experience of other states like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh rather than repeats the same mistakes.”
AK Sharma, a highly decorated former forest officer, puts it more bluntly:
“Increasing human traffic, whether in the form of illegal hotels in the buffer zone of
the forests or too much noise from human traffic and stone mining activities, all
destabilize the animals, who then move out of the area with tragic consequences. There has to be a balance.”
The lack of balance has had tragic consequences. Three lion cubs were run over by a goods train between Rajula and Pipavav in Amreli district recently. Two lions were also mowed down by a speeding vehicle on Somnath highway and a lioness was killed last month near Gir National Park. Two lions with three cubs perished similarly in January last year.
As things stand, the forest department is a pressured lot. After it cut lion safari permits to less than half, the tourism department built up pressure and the permits began inching up. “We were forced to relent because of pressure from top quarters in Gandhinagar. Mercifully, the forest is closed, so there is respite for a while,” said one forest official.
But for how long remains to be seen.