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Lions in exchange for tigers: The Gujarat-MP face-off

Indian Express: DECEMBER 12, 2005

It is the battle for the big cats in Madhya Pradesh, called the tiger state of India, and Gujarat, home to the Asiatic lion. Madhya Pradesh wants lions and Gujarat doesn’t have any tiger. "Tigers for lions," prescribes Dr M K Ranjit Singh, a wildlife expert, who hails from Gujarat but worked in Madhya Pradesh as the forest secretary and later with the government of India. He feels this will fulfil the aspirations of both states.

However, Gujarat, fiercely proud of its heritage, has refused numerous requests for parting with a few lions to be relocated at Palpur-Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, specially created as a second home to the Gir lion at an enormous cost. The central Indian state seems to have given up. "We are not going to beg for lions anymore," says PCCF (Wildlife) Dr P B Gandopadhyaya. "Our stand on the issue is very clear," retorts his counterpart in Gujarat Pradeep Khanna.

Outside zoos, the last tiger in Gujarat was spotted in 1997, and three years later, the count came down to nought. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, the state barely had eight tigers. On the other hand, the last census of Asiatic lions showed the population going up from 327 to 359 in five years.

"We have no reason to shift the lion anywhere, we have already expanded the sanctuary area," a proud Narendra Modi had declared. "Gujarat is the only political entity which had both lions and tigers. The tiger has become extinct in Gujarat but it can be re-established in the Dangs forest," says Singh.

According to P R Sinha, director of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, there should be no problems in the 'exchange'. Adds Dr Singh: "The habitat suitability will have to be studied keeping in view the World Conservation Union (IUCN) guidelines, protocol and procedures."

Singh has discussed the exchange with Gujarat government officials and their counterparts in Madhya Pradesh. Neither government is ruling out the possibility of a discussion, but the question is who will take the initiative given that the lion relocation project in Gujarat has come a cropper so far

"Let them come with a proposal, we will examine and study it. I can't say 'yes' or 'no' off hand," says Khanna. "There is no proposal from their side. We are ready if they approach us," says Dr Gangopadhyaya. This, when the same political party is ruling both the states. "The answers could come when both the states regard this as a challenge rather than a problem," concludes Singh.

Wells, fences are Gir lion's new enemies

Times of India: October 27, 2005

DHARI (AMRELI DIST): Bhikharbhai Bhimabhai's field is located 10 km from the Jasadhar outpost of the Gir forest. Conspicuous in the middle of the harvested field is an open well. Often, lions stray past his field. But Bhikhabhai brushes off the regal saunter as 'routine', unfazed by the fact that his well could turn into a grave for the beast.

Since August this year, after the June census recorded 359 lions, at least nine lions have died, some under suspicious circumstances. Wells like these are traps for the unsuspecting Asiatic lions who fall into them and end up either maimed or dead. Last summer, nearly eight lions and leopards were rescued from such wells.

Bhikharbhai does not want to spend Rs 5,000 on building a parapet wall. Worse still, villages bordering the forest are using wire-fencing, sometimes electrified. There have been instances of these wild cats dying by electrocution. These fences are camouflaged by thick cacti to fool forest guards. A resident of Dalkhaniya village says, "Usually, the cacti fence is enough to deter the lion, but sometimes they try crashing into it.

So when we see a group of lions straying in the area, we pass electric current in those wires." For these villagers, the lion is a threat to their livestock. Dhulabhai Ramji, who has his field on the Jasadhar-Una road, says, "Last year, when there were incidents of lion falling into wells, I had covered mine with a fishing net."

However, the damaged net would hardly hold the heavy-bodied lion, in case it stumbled. A senior government officer says the law provides for penal action against those harming this protected species, but so far no cases had been registered. Saurashtra is an arid zone and people were compelled to dig wells, which they abandon after they ran dry.

Besides, in the area outside the forest, there are over 1,000 wells (15 feet wide and 15 feet deep). "In a field at least one can fix responsibility, but who is accountable for an unattended well," asks this officer. Deputy conservator of forest SP Sisodiya says, "As all these wells are in the revenue area, all that the collectorate has to do is cover them."

Conservator of forest Bharat Pathak says, "This is a costly affair. We have covered about 600 wells in west Gir and many still remain open. We have written to the state and Central governments to allocate funds for covering wells." Pathak says forest officials have taken up a campaign to educate the villagers about the danger of electrifying fences and this has had some impact.


Seven Asiatic lions die in Gir sanctuary

DATELINE: October 4, 2005

Seven lions have mysteriously died from poisoning in the Gir sanctuary. The death of seven Asiatic lions in just one month has shaken the forest department and now extensive investigations are being carried out.

Villagers in the Sasan Gir area are angry because nails were pulled out from the lions' bodies after their death and they blame this on the inefficiency of the forest department.

"The fact that nails were taken out from the lions' bodies shows the absolute failure of the forest department to protect them. They should catch those responsible and punish them soon," says Vinubhai Solanki, Deputy Sarpanch, Sasan Village.

The forest department is in shock and is looking into the reasons for the deaths of the lions. As many lions died of poisoning, they are checking the water sources to see if they might be poisoned. And even though they have intensified patrolling, they reject any possibility of poaching.

"Those involved are all locals. No outside gang is involved, not even gangs of Madhya Pradesh who were active in some regions in the past. We are keeping a close watch," says Pradeep Khanna, Additional Chief Conservator of Forests. The forest department now needs to gear up to deal with this new threat.

Gir lion victims of heavy rains

Times of India: December 17, 2004

The latest victims of the Gujarat floods are the last of the Asiatic lions in the world, all residents of the Gir region. A dead lion washed up near Droneshwar dam in the state on Friday. Gujarat Chief Wildlife Warden Pradeep Khanna said a post-mortem confirmed the cause of its death as drowning.

This is a stern warning to bureaucrats and politicians, says wildlife activist Ananda Banerjee, adding that the entire lion population of Gir is in danger. (According to the last census, there were 359 lions).

“In India, all the lions are concentrated in Gir. A single epidemic can run through all of them and wipe them out. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the Asiatic lion doesn’t die out,” he pointed out.

Reacting to this, local conservationist and president of the Gir Nature Youth Club Amit Jethava said locals were dead against the “translocation of lions”. “Scientifically, we see no reason to do this.”

Banerjee said efforts to create a second viable population in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh, had failed because of resistance from Gujarat politicians and bureaucrats based mostly on false pride. “They want Gir to be the final resting place of the Asiatic lion,” he said.

Times of India: January 11, 2005

Times of India: December 17, 2004

RAJKOT: On Wednesday night, the residents of Virpur village in Amreli district were rudely awakened by a frightening invasion. Seven Asiatic lions had strayed into their village from the Gir sanctuary to prey on their livestock.

By dawn, the villagers, who had been helplessly watching the beastly assault from their homes, ventured out to count the carcasses — the village was strewn with the remains of 40-odd domestic animals.

Virpur resident Kanubhai Kothiya says, "Some seven lions killed 35 goats, four wild pigs and an ox. One or two lions stray into the village every week, but this was an army." The invasion has raised pertinent questions about the proliferating population of wildcats, which has compelled them to extend their territories and stray into human habitat in search of food.

Virpur's residents claim is customary for villages in and around protected areas like Dhari, Mityana and Tulsishyam to entertain these hungry guests at night.

The people do not venture outside the village after sunset, and if they do, they only return the following day. Mansukh Bhura says, "It is impossible for farmers to tend the fields at night as a lion could be sitting right in the middle of the field." But this is a way of life here. As Bhura of Virpur describes it, "Lions are as visible here as stray dogs in cities".

Conservator of forests (CF), Junagadh, Bharat Pathak admits that the lions are straying out of the sanctuary. According to him, "In every census, we find them making new homes outside the sanctuary. The population of lions is increasing; hence we are surveying new areas."

Bhavnagar-Shretrunji range CF AK Mishra agrees and says, "With the increase in numbers, these lions are moving out to new areas, not just for food but in search of new homes."

Former principal chief conservator of forest Sanat Chavan is not surprised by the invasion. He recalls, "The 1953 census showed 250 lions in an area of 4000 sq km, the population decreased to 170 lions in 1968 in the same area, but the last census recorded 327 lions in just 1450 sq km."

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