Jungle raj in Gir

Five years after the Supreme Court  ordered the translocation of some Asiatic lions from their only home in the Gir forests of Gujarat to a sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, a committee got around to discuss the details of the exercise. This meeting was in response to a contempt petition filed in the apex court by a Madhya Pradesh activist against the government’s inaction. The fact that it needed prodding by the highest court in the land to get things moving on saving the Asiatic lion says much about the destructive impact of local politics on wildlife conservation. Man-animal conflicts are the most common reason for wildlife controversies in India. With the Gir lions, this was the proximate trigger for the original decision to translocate some lions to Kuno-Palpur, Madhya Pradesh. But it is the state government’s chauvinism, not a concern for either the humans or the animals, that has ensured that not a single lion has been shifted to the new sanctuary. 

Gir has been one of the poster boys of successful conservation after a princely ruler banned the hunting of the dozen-odd lions that were extant in 1901. Today, the lion population has expanded to over 520, and the 1,400 square-km sanctuary can accommodate only about half that number. As a result, almost half of Gir’s lions live outside the protected areas. As with elephants and leopards, these intrusions caused tragedies on both sides. Poaching and accidental deaths (rail and road accidents as well as electrocution among others) take their toll on the lions — in 2016 and 2017, these unnatural causes caused the deaths of over 30 lions. Disease propagated through a shallow gene pool — of the kind that nearly wiped out Serengeti’s burgeoning big cat population — remains a constant threat in these overcrowded conditions. A sanctuary outside Gujarat was seen as a means of diversifying the DNA (breeding them in zoos is no substitute for rearing them in the wild).

Recent years have seen the emergence of man-eating lions, a sure sign of overpopulation and diminishing prey. In 2016, there was the bizarre spectacle of forest officials in Gujarat “rounding up” 18 lions suspected of killing three people. Those found “guilty” — on the evidence of paw prints and faeces on the victims — would be imprisoned in a zoo. The danger to the lion and the human from this conservation success story was evident to the wildlife establishment as far back as 1990, and by 1993 three alternative sites were identified as potential second homes: Two in Rajasthan and in Kuno-Palpur, all historical lion habitats. Madhya Pradesh, which derives decent revenues from wildlife tourism, had moved rapidly to create the Kuno-Palpur sanctuary, spending some ~140 million to relocate over 1,500 families.

The problem is that the Gujarat government under Narendra Modi’s chief ministership declined to cooperate. The ostensible reason it gave was the lack of prey in the new habitat, but large posters of lions issued by the state environment ministry gave the game away. “Gujarat’s pride, World’s envy,” read the legend on them. That combined with the lion’s close association with the Hindu religion and mythology added to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s reluctance to relinquish its exclusive claim to a living symbol of Hindutva ideology, even if a state ruled by the same party would share the honours. The state government even shifted some lions to a new site on the coast, but conservationists claim the population is still too close together to ensure robust gene diversification. 

The Supreme Court’s intervention shows that Mr Modi’s accession to prime ministership has not altered this outlook within the successor governments in Gujarat. Such sustained chauvinism may soon hasten the extinction of a species it purports to champion.  

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