by Elton Gomes
The Gujarat government has sought the help of a Central wildlife team in probing the deaths of 11 Asiatic lions in the Gir forest. The deaths of the big cats have left the Vijay Rupani government red-faced.
The Gujarat has been resisting the Supreme Court’s order to shift some of the Gir lions to the Kuno Palpur reserve forest in Madhya Pradesh, and the recent deaths of 11 lions is set to weaken the state’s argument that the lions are safe here.
11 lions found dead
Between September 11 and 19, carcasses of 11 lions, including cubs, were found in the forest. Nine of those were recovered from Dalkhaniya range while two were from the Jashadhar range of the Gir Forest.
A day after the carcasses were recovered, Gujarat forest minister Ganpat Vasava categorically stated that only three of the 11 lions were found dead due to infighting. The remaining nine died due to infection in lungs and liver. Rajiv Gupta, additional chief secretary, forests said, “nine lions died due to infighting and postmortem reports of two are awaited,” India Today reported.
“It was not even infighting for area, but territory. While lions within the stable pride were getting old and weak, the younger lions from another territory killed cubs and forced the older lions and lionesses into hiding. In hiding, they might have starved. But there was no case of contamination,” said state forest minister Ganpat Vasava. He further said, “These deaths were not due to poaching or drinking any contaminated water,” Hindustan Times reported.
Additional chief secretary Rajiv Gupta further said that viscera samples of the 11 lions’ carcasses had been sent to Pune National Institute of Virology (NIV) to find out the exact cause of death.
Central team to probe deaths
A Central team comprising wildlife experts and officials from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), reached Ahmedabad on Sunday. The team left for Gir forest to conduct an on-the-spot investigation, including assessing the autopsy and viscera reports of the dead lions.
“After analysing the reports from NIV, we will devise a long-term strategy to save lions” Gupta said, adding that the Central team had concluded that the deaths were not due to “unnatural” causes, such as intentional poisoning by humans. Gupta told reporters that the NTCA-WII team will remain in Gujarat for a few days so as to conduct a thorough probe of the case.
“Each team has a forester, two beat guards and one tracker. Veterinary doctors will assist these teams in identifying and rescuing sick lions and treat them at our rescue centres. We have also planned to vaccinate cattle near Gir area” Gupta said, PTI reported.
What have environmentalists said
Wildlife lovers and environmentalists are sceptical that so many deaths can occur in such a short time due to territorial infighting. Environment expert Mahesh Pandya told the Statesman that the recent deaths will certainly weaken Gujarat’s petition in Supreme Court, claiming that the lions are safe here.
Pandya alleged that the lions in Gir are becoming endangered due to the government’s inaction over illegal mining and encroachments. In giving licenses for resorts near sanctuary areas, the government seems to be disturbing the lions’ natural habitat.
Do the lions need a new home?
The death of 11 lions in such a short span has raised concerns over non-execution of the 2013 Supreme Court order concerning translocation of the lions to protect them from possible extinction in case of spread of an epidemic.
In addition, the Gir Forest is unable to sustain the steadily increasing lion population. The informal lion habitat area has doubled – from 10,000 sq km in 2010 to 20,000 sq km in 2015. During the same period, approximately 1,500 villages in eight districts of Saurashtra region are now located within the lion habitat.
A continuous growth in lion population is likely to result in instances of man-animal conflict. The strategies that have been effective till date could prove unsuccessful as an increasing number of villages become part of the informal lion habitat.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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