Lions caught in Gujarat government's conundrum: Can't care for them, won't let other states do it either
Gujarat government has not been frank, upfront or transparent about the causes of lion deaths in the past, and even more so since the current epidemic struck
The nation is shocked by the confirmed death of 23 Asiatic lions, formerly the national animal of India, in its only home in the wild, southern Saurashtra. Unconfirmed reports say the number is much larger and the process has been underway for some months. What is more alarming is that almost half of the 23 deaths are attributed to canine distemper virus, which had caused havoc among the lions of Tanzania in the past.
I am confident that the Government of Gujarat and, indeed, the people of Gujarat, will not allow the lion to go extinct in Saurashtra. However, this tragedy has raised larger and more basic issues that need to be faced and addressed, which, regrettably, does not appear to be happening so far.
First, the Gujarat government has not been frank, upfront or transparent about the causes of lion deaths in the past, and even more so since the current epidemic struck. Public criticism, and what it perceives to be a pending "threat" of having to abide by the Supreme Court order to transfer lions to Kuno — something Gujarat is doggedly thwarting on the ground of lions being unsafe in Kuno — are in all probability the reasons for the opacity and obfuscations on lion deaths on the part of the state government.
As per the last lion enumeration in 2015 in which I was privileged to participate, 523 lions were counted. In a reply to a question in the state legislature, Gujarat's minister for forests replied that 104 lions died in 2016 and another 80 in 2017. Pertinently, 12 of the 104 lions dead in 2016 and 20 of the 80 died in 2017 — a total of 32 in two years — were of "unnatural" causes. What were the "unnatural" causes — disease, poisoning, poaching? Furthermore, 104 deaths in one year out of a population 523 accounts for almost exactly a fifth of the population; is that normal, natural and sustainable? Are we sure there were no more than the officially confirmed 32 "unnatural" deaths in those two years? The Gujarat government owes an honest reply to this query, to the people of Gujarat and to the nation.
Second, the 2015 enumeration of lions revealed a most significant fact. The population of lions increased 27 percent from the previous count in 2010, much to the justifiable pride of the people and the Government of Gujarat. But in the five protected areas (PAs) that are the home of the lion — the contiguous Gir National Park, the Gir Sanctuary, the Paniya and Mitiyala sanctuaries and the isolated Girnar Sanctuary — the increase was only six percent. The PAs had reached their "saturation" point and were already "overflowing” with lions. The increase outside of the protected areas, in what Gujarat calls the Asiatic Lion Landscape (ALL), extending some 22,000 square kilometres, was a staggering 126 percent over a period of only five years.
Soon after, I published an article in the journal of the Bombay Natural History Society welcoming this reoccupation by the lion of its former territories, but pointing out the danger of increased man-lion conflict and its consequences, and stressing upon the need to "prepare a comprehensive prospective management plan, which would assist the lion to reoccupy suitable former habitats including the Barda landscape, allow movement of specimens to prevent, in breeding, as well as to safeguard the lions, their prey and their habitats". I had advocated the establishment of PAs — sanctuaries and conversation reserves. Gujarat has not established a single PA since 2008 — following an almost universal trend now prevalent in the country — and established no new protected areas to safeguard the lion and it newfound habitats. Lions were not even reintroduced in the Barda Sanctuary. Instead, Gujarat did something totally retrograde.
Taking into account the "allergy" of the state government towards establishing new PAs, some dedicated officers of the state Forest Department had proposed an excellent plan to establish Eco-Sensitive Zones around the Gir National Park and the adjacent PAs. The state government scrapped the proposal. The lions outside the PAs were left at the mercy of the local people; ALL was nothing but a signboard.
Third, the Supreme Court in April 2013 had passed a specific order that lions should be brought from Gujarat and reintroduced in the Kuno Sancutary in Madhya Pradesh overruling the objections of the Gujarat government. It had directed that an expert committee be appointed to prepare a "road map" for this lion reintroduction plan, within a specified time-bound period of six months. The committee, of which I am a member, has met around six times in these five years and the road map is far from being ready. In one of those pointless meetings, I had suggested that if the government was reluctant or incapable of affecting this translocation, which is so palpable, it should make such a submission to the apex court. On my part, I would not want to face the charge of contempt of court.
Which brings us to the fourth and final dimension I would like to emphasise. Gujarat is unwilling or incapable of looking after its surging, current population of lions outside of its five PAs, and has no prospective plan of how it will provide for the inevitable further increase of those lion populations outside of its PAs. These lions have come in conflict with man and will increasingly do so — over 3000 livestock are being killed by them yearly — and God forbid, if humans get killed, accidentally or otherwise, the situation will become even more untenable. Disease has reached the lions and culled them. There is a Supreme Court order that the government is wilfully flouting with its procrastination. Gujarat has left its unsafe, wandering, nomadic lions to fend for themselves, but will not give them to a neighbouring state as that would end the lion monopoly of Gujarat.
Which brings us to the basic issue: Are we Gujaratis — and I am one such — Indian first and Gujarati and whatever else thereafter?
The author is a principal architect of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and former chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India
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