A sundry image is building up as the monsoon drama unfolds over the sub-continent. Not long ago, amongst the several stories of angst, Gujarat’s torrential rains that continued for three long days in the last week of June, was in the spotlight. Severe flash floods in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts, took a toll on life and property, along with washing away nine endangered Asiatic Lions from their homes in the Gir Forest National Park located in the south western part of Amreli.
Forest officials recovered carcasses of four lions and lionesses each and a female cub, from the banks of the flooded Shetrunji River in Bhavnagar district. The perished lions are believed to be among the 40 odd big cats that forest officials said were ‘missing’ from the Krakach range of the Gir forest following the heavy rains.
As per a news report in the Indian Express, published in June 27, the deputy conservator of forests of Bhavnagar, G S Singh alludes that the cats succumbed due to the overflowing waters of the Shetrunji dam. Shedding more light on the topic, veteran conservation biologist, Ravi Chellam, faculty member, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun clarified to a G’nY correspondent that the floods didn’t affect the entire forest. “The deaths in fact happened outside the protected area. We believe they were washed away in the strong currents from the overflowing river due to heavy rainfall.”
The news caused furore among wildlife enthusiasts and reinforced their claims that restricting the lions to just one area puts the endangered species at the risk of extinction.
The Gir Forest National Park is known all over the world as the last bastion of the Asiatic Lion for more than a century. Asiatic lions were once widely distributed in Asia Minor and Arabia through Persia to India. The onslaught of human pressure led to diminution of the lion’s habitat and today, the last remaining individuals could be found only within the custodial 1412.1 sq km protected area (PA) of the Junagadh, Gir Somnath and Amreli districts of Gujarat, comprising a national park and a sanctuary—258.7 sq kms and 1153.4 sq kms respectively. Apart from this, 470.5 sq km designated as a protected unclassified forest, serves as the buffer zone to the PA.
The Asiatic Lions were included in the ‘critically endangered’ category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2000. That very year, it was changed to ‘endangered’ class in view of a steady increase in their numbers. But the status may be easily reversed, as opined by Chellam, adding that “the floods were evidence that the survival of the species was at risk because the lions were living in only one PA.” Since long, environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts have been urging the Indian government to take the pressure off the Gir and relocate a part of the populace so as to establish at least one more free ranging population of lions.
“Gir habitat is well conserved and local people extend great support to this cause, but what if this entire environment is threatened in the wake of some natural calamity?,” says eminent independent researcher on lions, Meena Venkataraman.
Way back in 1995, The Centre for Environment Law and WWF-I filed a petition in India’s apex court to get the Gujarat government to reintroduce Asiatic lions in to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. Citing the example of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Ravi Chellam, Justus Joshwa, Christy A Williams and A J T Johnsingh, on behalf of Wildlife Institute of India, appealed to the Supreme Court that confining the last of these cat species to the Gir Forest National Park exposes them to a plethora of dangers—epidemics, genetic deformities, forest fires or other unforeseeable calamities, thus increasing their chances of extinction. An outbreak of canine distemper in the early 90’s claimed a significant chunk of the lion population of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The appeal stated that, “If an epidemic of this scale were to affect the lions in Gir, it would be very difficult to save them from extinction, given the much smaller area of the forests and the smaller lion population. The possibility of the disease spreading to the pockets of habitat such as Girnar Mityala, Rajula, Kodinar and the surrounding areas, cannot be ruled out.”
The latest census of India’s population of the endangered Asiatic Lion reveal that their numbers has increased by 27 per cent from the previous census conducted five years back. The 14th Asiatic Lion Census 2015 documents the total number of lions to be 523, including 109 adult lions and 201 adult lionesses along with 213 sub adults and cubs
Experts argue that the population has almost reached the saturation point in the core area of the Gir, which might subsequently expose them to the vulnerabilities of inbreeding, disease and extinction. They also revealed that the proliferating population of these lions has chiefly been observed outside the protected zone—thus bringing them close enough to human habitations which might result in man-animal conflicts.
Gujarat might revel in the unwavering rise in population of these majestic cats, but the fact has engendered serious concerns among wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists. Exposing the perils, Bhushan Pandya, wildlife photographer and member of the State Board for Wildlife, Gujarat told G’nY correspondent that protecting the protected species outside the protected area is an uphill task in itself. “Speeding vehicles on the state and national highways, rail traffic, illegal electric wire fences in farms to protect crop from wild ungulates, open wells in villages and agriculture farms, etc., are major threats that the lions are susceptible to.”
The Supreme Court of India on April 15, 2013, acknowledged the proposed translocation to neighbouring Kuno wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh as being in the best interest of the species and rejected the Gujarat’s objections, instead ordering Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to enable the translocation by October 2013. So far, not a single lion has been shifted. As per Live Mint dated June 18, 2015, an environment ministry official reportedly said that “the population of lions has stabilised after a lot of hard work. The view that emerged from the expert meeting, which included wildlife division officials, was that the move to Madhya Pradesh could destabilise their population. Thus it has been decided to prepare a fresh affidavit explaining the same. It will soon be filed with the Supreme Court to inform and clarify on the issue”.
Gujarat has been objecting to the translocation plan on several grounds. Firstly, it cites that Kuno Palpur forests have a population of 6 to 8 tigers and coexistence of large cats is unlikely. Secondly, it points out that lions world over are known to prefer grasslands in sub-topical to near sub-tropical climates with normal temperature during the hottest period of the day below 42 degree C (approx). Kuno, however experiences temperature well above 45 degree C for a number of days. Such an environment may thus not be conducive for its survival. Gujarat also alludes to the lack of prey base at Kuno and adds that there is in reality no actual threat to the lion population as the current Asiatic lion population is not a single confined population but consists of meta-population spread over several locations within the Greater Gir Region.
The government of Gujarat further clarifies that lions are increasing in number and geographical distribution in the vicinity of Gir in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts. As lions are the ‘pride of the entire state’ the locals do not grudge the occasional predation of their cattle by lions and are happy to accommodate the natural increase in home range of lions. As per the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 337 of 1995 filed in the Supreme Court, besides Gir National Park and Gir-Paniya-Mithiyal Sanctuary and Devalia Interpretation Park, lions have made home in Girnar, grasslands of Savarkundla, Palitana and Mahuva hills and in the coastal regions of Jafrabad and Rajula in Amreli districts. Gujarat is also preparing a proposal to set up a new sanctuary in the Junagarh area, close to the present one to ease the pressure on the Gir forest. The proposed area spreads across 109 sq km, at a distance of 70 km from Gir. The identified area, also acts as a corridor for lions to travel along the banks of Shatrunj river to relatively newer territories near Bhavnagar and Amreli regions. The natural expansion of home range being the effective way of establishing natural meta population that infrequently interact among populations located at different places in the Gir region. Thus effectively isolated populations which may still receive genetic inputs from the base populations are establishing, providing an efficient method of conservation.
Madhya Pradesh claims that the biomass per sq km in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary excluding feral cattle and langur (3365.32 kg per sq/km) is more than the biomass in Gir PA (2785 kg per sq/km) and the area could easily sustain a lion population.
Could it perhaps then be that the Government of Gujarat is more focused on tourism as opposed to conservation? As these endangered beasts are high revenue generators, Gujarat may be reluctant to share them with its neighbouring states.
On being asked about the impacts of a possible extinction, Meena Venkataraman told our correspondent, “Obviously losing apex predator will have the usual cascading effect of explosion in wild ungulate populations and habitat alteration in the long term. A species which has survived through evolutionary times despite various changes in historical time should not be a victim of human influences.”
Endangered species ‘are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the nation and its people’ as per the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Preserving a species before it comes to a critical point of extinction necessitates urgent attention. A sudden dip in the population of apex species such as the lions, could upset the equilibrium of the entire ecosystem besides resulting in a huge loss to the nation.