Friday, April 13, 2007

India: Is Gir turning into a lion's Sariska?

Wednesday 11 April 2007

He is the king of the jungle. Or so the old jungle saying goes. Gir forest reserve keepers appear to have counted on this fact and let the Asiatic lion fend for itself in its last bastion. As a result, poachers seem to have taken over the forest killing as many as six lions in the past month. The killing and subsequent deboning of the lions inside the sanctuary has finally shaken conservationists, who had so far believed that the lion was safe in this haven. A new reality is slowly emerging, that with the tiger nearly extinct and fast disappearing from its 'protected'habitat, the lion has become even more vulnerable that before.

In an already overcrowded sanctuary and forest, the big cat is a veritable sitting duck for poachers looking for claws, skins, bones and skulls. The poaching menace has finally arrived to haunt the only home of the Asiatic lion in the wild. The Gujarat government, however, seems to be taking time to wake up. Gujarat's forest minister Mangubhai Patel still believes poaching is not a serious threat. "These are stray incidents,"he told TOI. Despite six killings, all that Patel has done is to ask the police and the forest department to prepare a report.

Little has been done to draw up a blueprint to create a safe habitat for the lion — which prefers open spaces, strays far and wide and doesn't attack humans — taking behavioural traits into account. Gujarat is fighting tooth-and-nail to stall a move to shift some of the lions to Madhya Pradesh, despite the fact that the lion - with its burgeoning population - is finding itself cramped for space in the present sanctuary and has strayed far from the protected zone.

Scores of lions are routinely coming out of the sanctuary. Of the 359-strong population, as many as 80 lions have settled in Amreli, 14 in Bhavnagar and another 55 along the Saurashtra coast. This virtually means that nearly 40% of Gir's lion population is now outside the protected sanctuary and national park, completely at the mercy of humans who feel threatened by roaming big cats who often prey on their cattle.

Even within the 1,450 sqkm protected area, the lion not safe anymore. Despite projecting the lion as its unique possession, little has been done to ensure its safety. The lion-to-beat guard ratio is dismal, with only 250 guards to man 359 big cats. And even if the guard wanted to save the lion, he can hardly make a difference with the lone lathi he is provided in the huge expanse of 50 sqkm he has to man all on his own.

The government has simply allowed public roads to snake through the forest and turn into busy thoroughfares right in the heart of the sanctuary. Large number of vehicles use these roads, even at night. And the 20-odd checkposts can hardly keep tabs on, who is entering the sanctuary. If that wasn't bad enough, 25 km of railway line passes through this lion territory. Making matters even worse, is the anger in the maldhari (cattleherder) community. The maldharis have shared space with the lions for generations.

But now they have been asked to move out of the core area and as a result see the lion as responsible for snatching away of their livelihood. Today, they aren't interested in protecting the lion anymore and have stopped sharing information about "outsiders" infiltrating Gir. What's more, forest officials suspect some of them may have even joined hands with the poachers. 1872128.cms

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