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article imageIndian lion conservation success turning into a political dispute

By Igor I. Solar     May 17, 2010 in Environment
Gandhinagar - Conservationists believe the lions are at risk because the entire population is restricted to a forest in Gir, Gujarat, and they want to move some of lions to a Wildlife Sanctuary in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh. The Government of Gujarat opposses the move.
A conservation dispute is brewing between the authorities of the Indian states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The feud centers on conservation efforts of the Asian lion and the concern of the people of Gujarat over possession of one of their most valued genetic resources: the only extant population of this large feline in Asia.
The Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica, is a sub-species of the well known African lion (Panthera leo). Asiatic lions used to range from the Tigris River valley in Turkey and Iraq to the Indian subcontinent, but now they are found in the wild only in Gir, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The last sightings of these big cats in locations other than India were in Iraq in 1918 and in Iran in 1942. A captive breeding population of the species is known to exist in Iran.
A lioness in Gir National Park and Sanctuary  Gujarat  India.
A lioness in Gir National Park and Sanctuary, Gujarat, India.
Until 2000 the Asiatic lion was listed by the UICN Red List as critically endangered because of the very low number of animals left in a single population restricted to the teak-wood forests of Gir National Park and Sanctuary. At one point, in 1908, the total population was no more than 13 individuals. By 1968, 177 animals were accounted for.
Protective measures have resulted in significant recovery of the big cat population. To evaluate the progress achieved, a census was undertaken in April 2010 using modern scientific tools such as radio-telemetry, Geographical Information System (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS) and high resolution photography. The results of the census were reported on May 2 by Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Compared to the last count in 2005, there has been an increase of 52 lions, bringing the total to 411 this year.
This is good news to the people of Gujarat who consider the lion as their “Animal King” and take great pride in the results of the recovery efforts. At the same time, this has increased their resolve to oppose the intention to take some of the lions and relocate them to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Bharat Mata or  Mother India   national personification of India  with a lion by her side.
Bharat Mata or "Mother India", national personification of India, with a lion by her side.
Scientists partial to the move justify it by the old-saying “you cannot put all your eggs in one basket”. Additionally, they feel that the increase in the population is resulting in a restriction of the environmental capacity of the Gir Sanctuary, risk of inbreeding, potential conflicts with humans raising cattle in the area, and that a forest fire or a disease could potentially wipe out decades of successful recovery work. Gujarat authorities argue that they have demonstrated that they know well how to take care of the lions. Furthermore, they claim that a previous relocation ended in disaster. An attempt was made in 1957 to establish a population in the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh. The translocation project initially appeared successful. The lion population grew from three to 11 animals. However, the lions suddenly disappeared. Scientists attributed the failure to lack of understanding about factors like adequacy of prey, habitat requirements and need for constant monitoring. Gujarat residents, claim that there was not enough protection and that the precious animals were either shot or poisoned.
The campaign and preparation of Kuno as a new location for the big cats started in 1994. This included the relocation of 24 villages of the Sahariya tribe to prevent human-lion encounters and potential conflicts. Lions were supposed to be translocated in 2001. However, the Gujarat Forest Department has succeeded so far in stopping the move. And if Chief Minister Modi, the Government of Gujarat, and the scientists of the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary have it their way, the population of wild Asiatic lions of Gir will remain a monopoly not found elsewhere.
This conflicting issue is now before the Indian Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Kuno officials are considering the idea of releasing some captive-bred lions into the wild, after training them in hunting and survival techniques. However, they have not managed to convince Iranian authorities to let go of some of their own captive lions.
Lioness at Gir National Park and Sanctuary  Gujarat  India.
Lioness at Gir National Park and Sanctuary, Gujarat, India.
More about Asiatic lion, India, Gir, Kuno
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