A lion task: second home for Gir’s big cats remains mired (With Images)

June 22nd, 2009 - 10:49 am ICT by IANS  

By Sanjeeb Baruah
New Delhi, June 22 (IANS) India’s Asiatic lions are the most vulnerable of all the big cats as they live in a single area in Gujarat, making them prone to diseases as well as other threats, and yet calls for creating a second home by the scientific community have been repeatedly ignored, say experts.

The sprawling Gir National Park in western India is home to some 350 Asiatic lions, the last refuge for these cats. In the past, the lions had roamed in almost the entire Central Asia.

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), a leading scientific organisation, recommended the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh for setting up a second home for the Gir lions.

But the Gujarat government rejected the proposal, saying it lacks scientific backing and security.

Experts believe Kuno in central India is part of the lion’s historical home range.

Gujarat says if Madhya Pradesh cannot protect their tigers, how can they protect the lions.

Supreme Court lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who has taken up the case filed by the Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India, a Delhi-based NGO, in the apex court for transfer of the lions, told IANS: “If the issue is not resolved, there would be a huge economic loss.”

“The 24 villages that were inside the Kuno reserve have been resettled elsewhere to make room for the Gir lions and an estimated Rs.15 crore has been spent on the project,” said Dutta.

However, with the recent admission by the Madhya Pradesh government that there are no tigers left in the Panna reserve, it might just assure the Gujarat government of its case.

But Faiyaz Khudsar, a wildlife biologist who heads the NGO and has worked in Kuno for the lion relocation programme, says, “Wild animals confined to a single area can spell death knell to their long-term survival, and this has been proved by science.”

“Some years ago in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, at least 25 percent of the African lion population there was wiped out due to the canine distemper disease, (a fatal viral disease) and the rest of the lions fell sick. This shows how a single epidemic can wipe out the entire lion population in the park,” said Khudsar.

The Serengeti Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, is spread across more than 14,000 sq km, whereas Gir has an area of just over 1,000 sq km. Despite the sprawling size of Serengeti, the African lions fell to the onslaught of the viral disease, he maintains.

Besides, inbreeding over a period of time can render a population confined to a single area genetically weak, as they don’t get the chance to mate with stronger partners from other geographical areas, making them more prone to diseases, he said.

Gir lions are also threatened by poaching, man-animal conflict and accidents. Many lions have died recently after falling into the wells created to provide water for flora and fauna of the park.

“If Gujarat says that there is a security issue in Kuno, then why are the lions straying out of Gir. Some of the lions are even reaching Daman and Diu,” said Khudsar.

“The only solution left is to create different populations in different areas. The geographical barriers might help the lions evolve stronger genes in the near future that would ensure their long-term survival,” he explains.

Gujarat said its lion population has stabilised and shown healthy growth from just 177 in 1968 to about 350 at present.

In 1956, attempts to introduce Gir lions in Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh “failed due to scientific shortcomings” and there is no scientific basis to show that the present initiative would be a success, Gujarat said in an affidavit to the Supreme Court recently.

“This project shall be pioneering and hopefully trail blazing,” it noted.

But Khudsar claims science has made tremendous progress since the first attempt in the 1950s.

“Now we have the technology such as ‘radio-collaring’ to monitor the lions. Besides, there are many other advances animal science has made.”

For now, the Supreme Court has referred the case to the Wildlife Board of India for its opinion. The next hearing in the case is on Aug 11.

(Sanjeeb Baruah can be contacted at sanjeeb.b@ians.in )

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