Ahmedabad: A couple of years ago, when the state government was in the middle of a fervent argument in Supreme Court as to why even a single Asiatic lion should not be moved to Madhya Pradesh from Gir forest in Saurashtra, a senior forest officer in Gujarat confided that the battle was actually over and it was only a matter of time before the lions left us to go to Kuno Palpur.
His tone and tenor betrayed the finality that emerged only on Monday morning. Forest officers in Gujarat will thump their chest to stand by the CM’s political promise, but the administrators knew halfway through the battle they did not have a case.
For one, the latest census of 2010 pegs lion population at 411 spread over ‘Greater Gir region’ of 5,000 sq km in four districts of Saurashtra, but the actual population is believed to be at least 50% higher spread over a much larger area. Man-animal conflicts have started in the region and it’s not a matter of debate that it will increase.
Close to Gir, state government declared Mitiyala as wildlife sanctuary in 2004 and Girnar in 2008. Lions are spotted crossing roads like stray dogs, mating in the bushes by the roadside and roaming the fields for prey, sometimes destroying standing crop. They are practically omnipresent in the region.
Besides declaring the surrounding region as sanctuaries, the government needs to conserve the corridors for the beast to pass through with ease. This is difficult with the steadily increasing population leading to a burst in realty rates and industrial pressures on the region; thus resulting in man-animal conflict. The commitment of junior forest staff guarding the jungle cannot be faulted, but in terms of numbers and other resources, the department runs short. An average forester will candidly admit that a few lions shifting to MP are not a bad deal at all.
That said, the other debate that emerges is, are the lions actually safe in MP or did Gujarat lose the case because it did not argue well? There is a school of thought that believes the establishment made the right noises over Gujarati Asmita manifested in Asiatic lions, but left the case half-baked in court. For instance, the concept of ‘Greater Gir’ was not explained properly in court. The lion population would spread over an area of 5000 sq km, which takes care of fears of a single epidemic wiping out the whole population.
Poaching incidents in Gujarat are far and few between, barring a single poaching incident in 2007 when eight lions were killed. MP, on the other hand, has a serious problem of poachers and the state establishment is struggling with it. Gujarat failed to make that point stick either, despite the stellar performance of Gujarat police in cracking the poaching case in record time.
Last but not the least, the politics of the development will either merge or emerge in following weeks. Modi and MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, though from BJP, are not believed to be the best of friends. Despite Modi’s obvious reluctance, Chouhan continued to press the demand for lions. MP readied the site for translocation about a decade ago, by shifting 23 villages to make space for the beast at a massive cost to the exchequer. The sanctuary was selected as the reintroduction site for the Asiatic lion because it is located in the former range of the lions before they were hunted into extinction in around 1873.