Three months after at least 20 lions in Gujarat succumbed to a virus, the Centre and the Gujarat governments announced a Asiatic Lion Conservation Project. The Asiatic Lion is listed as ‘Endangered’ under the IUCN Red List. It is exposed to severe threats in the Gir region like shrinking habitat, vulnerability to diseases, death from linear infrastructure such as road, rail and electric fences, man-animal conflict.
The conservation project which has a “Species Conservation over a large landscape” focuses on disease management, habitat improvement and eco-development, making more sources of water available robust wildlife health service with a dedicated veterinary institute, lion ambulances”, back-up stocks of vaccines addressing of man-wild animal conflict issues, voluntary relocation of Protect Area inhabitants (Maldhari tribe), monitoring and tracking of animals, creating a wildlife crime cell, a task force for the Greater Gir region. It would also involve having in place a GPS-based tracking system, which would look at surveillance tracking, animal and vehicle tracking.
There would also be an automated sensor grid that would have magnetic sensors, movement sensors and infra-red heat sensors. The project also seeks to divide The Greater Gir Region that includes, area other than the existing Gir National Park, sanctuaries in Girnar, Pania and Mitiyala, into various zones and formulate various “zone plans and theme plans” for their management.
Total budget of the project for 3 years that amounts to nearly INR 9,784 lakh will be funded from the Centrally Sponsored Scheme- Development of Wildlife Habitat (CSS-DWH) with the contributing ratio being 60:40 of Central and State share.
Reasons for translocation
The big cat population in Gujarat is the last of the Asiatic lions in the wild. In 2013, the Supreme Court had issued an order in this regard. Under this, lions from Gujarat are to be relocated to the Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. This was ordered as a check against the threat of epidemic. A smaller population with limited genetic strength are more vulnerable to diseases and calamities than a large and widespread population.
The court noted how 30% of the lion population in Tanzania’s Serengeti was killed due to an outbreak of a viral disease. Asiatic lion has been restricted to only one single habitat i.e. the Gir National Forest and its surrounding areas. So an outbreak of possible epidemic or natural calamity might wipe off the entire species. Very recently, after the series of deaths, the Supreme Court has asked the Central government to look into it.
Gujarat unwilling to relocate
Gujarat has been unwilling to relocate its lions, calling them “its pride”. Gujarat has responded that lions are now spread over the Greater Gir region and this reduces the threat. When ill, lions are routinely picked up, medically treated, and then released. It thus said that good conservation practices and intensive wildlife healthcare had lead to epidemic free regime.
It has also said that the lions there are metapopulations in the State, which may be geographically separate but have interactions and an exchange of individuals. So the current Asiatic lion population is not a single population confined to one place. It consists of “metapopulation spread over several locations within the Greater Gir Region”.
When wild animals go extinct locally, they are reintroduced as in the case of tigers in Sariska, Rajasthan. When hungry, they are fed artificially, and even provided salts as supplements. In other parts of India, wild animals are funnelled through artificial trenches, barriers and fences. But this is wildlife conservation in the age of man, where protected areas sometimes resemble zoos. In nature, wildlife conservation concerns itself with maintaining ecological processes and reducing threats to endangered species.
This does not entail treating wild animals for disease as done for domestic animals. As it is not conducive to the ‘natural’ process of life and death, it goes against the natural selection processes, and ultimately compromises immunity. So intensive artificial medical treatment of wild animals does not augur well for long-term sustainability.
The Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh was identified to be the most suitable for reintroducing the species, according to a Supreme Court-appointed technical expert committee.