Friday, February 3, 2023

A roaring rumpus

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Though the SC has ordered the gradual translocation of the big cats from Gir forest in Gujarat to Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, the wait continues.

By Rakesh Dixit


The lion may be the king of the jungle, but the future of these animals in Gir forest are in someone else’s hands. An ambitious Rs. 79-crore plan to relocate the first batch of some 400 lions from Gujarat to Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh is in doldrums, as it awaits a nod from the National Board of Wildlife headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The relocation follows a Supreme Court (SC) order on April 15 last year.

Despite the deadline for implementation having lapsed almost a year ago, MP is not pushing for it, though it is eager to fund the entire plan without waiting for the center’s allocation. A senior MP minister said the central government was far from being cooperative, but MP didn’t want to press the point due to political considerations. MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is seen as a staunch Advani camp follower and does not want to be seen sparring with either Gujarat or the center, both BJP-ruled.

Long wait

The forest department of MP has already sent two reminders to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) this year to start the relocation process, but nothing has moved. MP’s chief wildlife warden Narendra Kumar says: “I have written to the ministry’s expert committee to initiate operations for shifting the lions at the earliest. We are ready from our side.” Incidentally, Kuno Palpur was chosen as an alternate home for Asiatic lions during a feasibility study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).

State forest minister Gauri Shankar Shejwar says: “Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has already earmarked Rs. 30 crore to make Palpur-Kuno an appropriate home for lions.” Although he refuses to comment on the reasons for delay, he adds that on the direction of the monitoring committee constituted by the SC, MP has rehabilitated two villages that would get displaced when the lions come to a national park in Kuno Palpur.

The committee, headed by wildlife scientists Ravi Chellam and YV Jhala, had chalked out how these lions would be shifted. It had recommended the shifting of a single pride of five to ten Asiatic lions with 60-70 percent female population in the first set over the next two years. Every three to five years, two-three lions—mostly male—should be translocated from Gir to Kuno to maintain the inter-linkage between lion populations in the two sanctuaries, it had suggested. This would continue for 25 years.

Chellam, a well-known conservationist and former director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India, says: “Kuno was chosen because of its size—3,000 square kilometers—and diverse prey base. Lions need lots of space, plenty of prey and protection from people.” Wildlife studies have shown that the prey count in Kuno was higher than in Gir. MP has already spent Rs. 14.5 crore for relocation of 1,543 families from 24 revenue villages so that an alternate habitat could be made for Gujarat’s Asiatic lions. “The translocation is about strengthening conservation prospects. At the moment, all our eggs are in one basket and that is a huge risk,” says Chellam.

During the first deliberations of the SC committee on July 29, 2013, the panel had brushed aside Gujarat’s objections to the process. MP forest department sources clai-med that the committee was satisfied with the progress for translocation in Kuno Palpur.

Royal similarities

By a strange quirk of royal history, Gir and Kuno Palpur have something in common. By the end of the 19th century, lions had all but vanished in India. However, only the nawab of Junagarh painstakingly managed to keep a dozen of them alive in Gir forest under his state. Around this time—1904 to be precise—the then Maharaja of Gwalior had introduced some African lions in Kuno Palpur, presumably on the advice of Viceroy Lord Curzon. Unfortunately, while the nawab’s conservation initiatives triumphed, the maharaja’s experiment failed miserably, as his lions raided livestock and some even became man-eaters and had to be shot dead. Wildlife experts attributed the decimation of the African lions to the notorious gun culture of the once dacoity-infested Chambal-Gwalior region, of which Kuno Palpur is a part. And it is this gun culture that the Gujarat government vehemently cited in the SC to forestall the translocation of its lions.

The Gujarat government’s eight-year-long legal battle was based on two arguments. One was that man-animal affinity in and around Gir had ensured the growth of Asiatic lions from near extinction a century ago to a teeming population of 400. Two, the gun culture prevalent around the proposed home in MP poses grave danger to their survival. The wiping out of tigers from Panna National Park near Kuno Palpur was repeatedly cited in court. But the MP government reminded the court that tigers had been successfully reintroduced in Panna. If tigers can be translocated successfully, why cannot lions, it argued.

Whose property?


While setting a six-month deadline to start the translocation, a bench of Justices KS Radha-krishnan and CK Prasad ruled: “No state can claim the right over an animal merely because the animal is housed in a particular state. It does not become the property of that state, it belongs to the country.” Subsequently, a desperate Gujarat government filed a curative petition in court for review of the order, but that too was rejected on August 16 this year by a bench headed by Chief Justice RM Lodha.

Welcoming the ruling, wildlife experts pointed out that it was vital to safeguard the long-term future of these lions. “Gujarat’s lions come from a very narrow genetic base of about 25 animals at the turn of the last century, and that makes them very vulnerable,” says National Board of Wildlife member Prerna Singh Bindra. “In case of an epidemic, they could even be wiped out, and hence, it’s important that they have a second home.”

MK Ranjitsinh, Wildlife Trust of India chairman, also welcomes the court’s intervention. “I had helped set up Kuno sanctuary when I was MP’s forest secretary, so it is a dream fulfilled that lions will be introduced there,” he said.

Now, the ball is in the court of Modi, who is ex-officio chairman of the National board on wildlife. As Gujarat CM, Modi had sparred with the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh over relocation of lions from Gir.

Meanwhile, MP waits for the first roar of the Asiatic lion.

Why the long march

The SC’s verdict to shift the lions was primarily guided by wildlife experts’ concern that a single population of Asiatic lions in Gir faces the threat of epidemics, natural disasters and other anthropogenic factors. This was precisely the gist of a study initiated by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 1986.

The study found that the lions largely preyed upon wild herbivores such as sambar and chital and the size of their home range was 70 square kilometers for females and 140 square kilometres for males. It found that Gir Wildlife Sanctuary was highly overpopulated with lions. There were numerous deaths because of ever-increasing competition between humans and animals. Based on this study, MoEF conceived the project to safeguard these lions.

WII researchers confirmed that the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was the most promising location for Asiatic lions and in 2007, certified it ready to receive its first batch of lions.

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