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Are Asiatic Lions Paying the Price for Gujarati Asmita?     

Gujarat govt’s refusal to translocate lions has put the big cat at risk of epidemics and excessive human contact.

Published
India
5 min read
Lioness rests amid the high grass of Gir.
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Gujarat government calls Asiatic lions ‘The pride of Gujarat’, but is not willing to share its ‘pride’ with other states. In April 2013, the Supreme Court had directed the Gujarat government to translocate some lions to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary within six months.

Five years have passed since the apex court’s ruling, and the Gujarat government has brazenly violated the order. It is no secret that the Gir range is overpopulated with lions, and the big cat pays a heavy price.

Last week 11 lion carcasses were found in Dalkhaniya and Jashadhar of the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by the death of two more lions on Monday.

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Govt Claims Infighting Resulted in Lion Deaths

The state government has claimed that three lion cubs were killed by a male lion to establish dominance, while two lionesses and an adult lion died from respiratory and hepatic (relating to the liver) failure. The post-mortem reports of five other lions, including two cubs and one lioness, are yet to come in.

A team comprising top officials and experts from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) is probing the death. In their preliminary report they have claimed that the cause of death was infighting, and infection caused by resultant injuries.

An Asiatic lion rests in Gir forest. 
An Asiatic lion rests in Gir forest. 
(Photo: Reuters)
The forest department claims that the death of the lion cub on Monday was natural as 70 percent of lion cubs fail to reach adulthood. According to the department around 100 lions die annually, with the death rate peaking during monsoon – an average of 31 to 32 lions die during the three months of monsoon.

‘Lions Don’t Kill Lionesses’

Additional Chief Secretary (Forest) Rajiv Gupta told reporters that the Central team had concluded that the deaths were not due to ‘unnatural’ causes, such as intentional poisoning by humans.

However, a local wildlife activist under the condition of anonymity said, “Ideally the SC order should be adhered to ensure that the lion population thrives in multiple locations. However, the government is showing zero keenness to move lions and its negative impact can be seen on the ground. Right now, poisoning of lions cannot be ruled out until the post-mortem report throws light on the real picture.”

Gir Lion resting in the shade.
Gir Lion resting in the shade.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia)
“One thing is for sure, infighting couldn’t have been the reason for the deaths of the lionesses. Infighting is a territorial phenomenon where lions fight among themselves or kill the cubs of the lioness so that the latter submits to them for mating. There is no reason why they will kill the lioness for the sake of territory.”
Local Wildlife Activist
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Gir is Saturated

Gujarat is home to 523 lions according to the 2015 census (109 male, 201 female, 73 sub-adults and 140 cubs). Wildlife experts predict that the numbers could well be exceeding over 600 in 2018.

At least 45-50 percent of these lions move outside the protected areas and are often seen crossing highways and railway lines which results in unnatural deaths.

The birth of eleven lion cubs  in the Gir Sanctuary had created quite a stir on social media. (Courtesy: AP screengrab)
The birth of eleven lion cubs in the Gir Sanctuary had created quite a stir on social media. (Courtesy: AP screengrab)

Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Gujarat and present member of the National Board for Wildlife, HS Singh spoke to The Quint at length about the various factors that could have led to the recent lion deaths.

“First of all, Gir is saturated. There are over 600 lions in Gujarat and the Gir can hold around 300 to 330. The remaining have ventured out of the protected areas all the way to the coast. This puts them in direct contact with all sorts of domesticated animals which can result in infections and diseases.”

“Easiest way to get infected is through dogs. Lions prey on stray dogs and get infected by ticks. If the dogs are rabid then it is a death sentence for the lion. This has happened many times before as well, even the British era back in 1931, lions and leopards were dying in huge numbers because they feasted on rabid dogs.”
HS Singh, Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Gujarat and present member of the National Board for Wildlife

Translocation Remains on the Back-Burner

Wildlife experts vouch for translocation to ensure that the lion population does not breach the protected zone, thereby protecting it from epidemics, large forest fires and human interaction.

In fact, talks on translocation started way back in 1993-94; in 2006, a lawsuit was filed in the Supreme Court demanding reasons for the delay in translocation. On 15 April 2013, the SC ordered the Gujarat government to translocate lions within six months to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Ajay Shankar Dubey, who is a wildlife activist based in Madhya Pradesh, filed a contempt petition in the SC in 2014 after Gujarat failed to comply with the SC order. The case was first heard in November 2017 and in March 2018 the SC discharged the plea after the Union government gave assurances that a Standing Committee will be formed, and translocation will be expedited soon.

“The standing committee met just once in March 2018 and since then no meetings were held. We will approach the SC once again next week as the Gujarat government is hiding behind a pile of excuses. These lion deaths make our case stronger, because overpopulation of lions can lead to viral infections and epidemics.”
Ajay Shankar Dubey, wildlife activist
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MP Increases Area of Kuno-Palpur Sanctuary

The Madhya Pradesh government was asked to increase the land area of the sanctuary to accommodate lions from Gir, which it did.

“We have de-notified two wild life sanctuaries and increased the size of Kuno-Palpur from 350 Sq Km to over 700 Sq Km. This was a requirement raised by the expert committee formed by the Union Government for trans-locating lions from Gir to Kuno.”
Alok Kumar, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (APCCF) of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department

“The Madhya Pradesh government has met with all the stipulations. Yet the Gujarat government is unnecessarily delaying the translocation process citing International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines. Those guidelines have already been reviewed under the Supreme Court order,” Dubey added.

There is still no word from the Gujarat government about translocating lions to MP as it frantically tries to save face. The Quint tried to reach the state forest minister Ganpat Vasava on phone multiple times, but he has not responded yet.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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