IndiaWilds Newsletter Vol.2 Issue II

IndiaWilds Newsletter Vol.2 Issue II

Asiatic Lion: The Survival Challenges
The Asiatic lion is in focus now due to the opposition by the Gujarat Government to allow relocation of lions from Gir to Kuno-Palanpur area in Madhya Pradesh. Wildlife Institute of India had created the original proposal and done the feasibility study to create a second home for the lions.

The Asiatic lions have been extirpated from their territory in Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor. They have also met the same fate in other parts of India except Gir where a small population of an estimated three hundred odd lions still survive. These lions have bounced back from certain extinction when the population was estimated to have been between 12 and 31 in a 35 year period starting from 1880. However, it is known that any population numbering less than 500 is considered to be a small number for survival of a species.

Asiatic Lion needs a second home away from Gujarat

Asiatic Lions need a second home away from Gujarat. Photo credit: Anand Madabhushi

Genetic Profile of Gir lions:
The genetic profiling of Gir lions done by Stephen J. O’Brien had thrown disturbing results. The Gir lions had virtually zero measurable genetic diversity. The DNA fingerprint patterns of Gir lions were all identical, as if they were from clones. The variation is even less than that of the Cheetah. It was even much less than that of the lions from Ngorongoro crater. (It might be pertinent to mention that in 1962 the lions of Ngorongoro crater were devastated by an epidemic and only 10 individuals survived. ) In O’Brien’s words: “Not one of the fifty allozymes was variable, no MHC-RFLP variation was apparent, and the mitochondrial DNA sequences measured by the RFLP technique were all identical”.

Stephen J. O’Brien’s study found that the Gir lions had suffered a genetic bottleneck around 2100 years ago. Gir was an island around that time. Rising water levels had cut off the passage from the mainland and the population in Gir was isolated and as a result inbred over several generations. Later geological changes resulted in Gir becoming a part of the mainland again. By that time lions of India were cut off from Gir due to loss of habitat and later on were extirpated leaving the severely inbred lions of Gir being the only lions in India and Asia.

Consequences of Genetic bottleneck:
The Gir lions had on an average 66% malformed sperm, compared to 50% in the lions of Ngorongoro crater that had reduced to 10 individuals in 1962, and the malformed sperm in Serengeti lions was 25%. Gir lions had five times less motile sperm per ejaculate than Serengeti lions and a tenfold reduction in serum testosterone levels. This results in difficulty in conceiving, miscarriages and higher mortality in cubs.

Added to these difficulties are the changes in the landscape since 1877 when Gir used to be about 3000 square kilometres. Today it is about 1400 sq. kilometres out of which is carved the National Park with an area of 258.71 sq. km area. Gir is now surrounded by human habitations, polluting industries, limestone quarries etc. The deluge of pilgrims visiting the various temples inside the forests adds to the pressure.

In this backdrop, it is imperative that we soon create a second home for the Gir lions, so that an epidemic or natural calamity won’t wipe out all our lions. The need for a second home is in principle agreed by the Gujarat Government; however it is against sending lions out of Gujarat.

Learning from Past Relocation Attempt:
In the past, an attempt was made to relocate lions to Chandraprabha Sanctuary in Varanasi Forest Division. Though there were similarities in terrain as well as flora and fauna, the sanctuary was only 37 Square miles with a perimeter of 28 square miles and there were lot of anthropogenic pressures. One lion and two lionesses were translocated in Nov 1957 and by 1965 their numbers had increased to 11. So the lions having found the area small had moved out of the sanctuary and were even reported in the far away Mirzapur forests. They probably succumbed to poaching and poisioning, as cattle grazing was rampant. So there is a precedence of sending lions from Gujarat out of the state. And since this time Wildife Institute of India has done a thorough study, before selecting Kuno as the place for relocation of lions, the Government of Gujarat should agree to the relocation programme.

Zoo lions for Kuno:
One of the ideas floating around was to introduce a few Asiatic lions from the zoos to the Kuno sanctuary and try to teach or induce them to hunt and gradually turn into wild. However, the proponents of this idea are perhaps not aware of Stephen J. O’Brien’s study. He had found that the zoo bred Asiatic lions are not genetically pure. This immediately defeats the purpose and brings the focus back to the lions found in Gir. Hence, the only way to save the Asiatic lions is to relocate them from Gir to Kuno.

Time frame:
The relocation of lions to Kuno should not be a one off affair. Too often our forest department has tried to take short cuts. One should remember that our conservation efforts should be on the basis of science rather than political or other considerations. So the relocation of lions from Gir should continue for atleast couple of generations so that the spectre of further inbreeding doesn’t haunt the lions in Kuno.

On hypothetical conflict with tigers:
One of the reasons for the Gujarat Government to oppose the lion relocation programme to Kuno is that the relocated lions are likely to be exposed to forests already habituated by tigers. It is believed that the decline of lions in the gangetic belt is due to conflict with tigers. Though, I have been fascinated by tigers from my childhood days, I have to admit that there is no scientific proof of tigers decimating the lion population. The decline of lions in the gangetic plains is more due to the reclamation of land for cultivation and the systematic murder of lions by hunters during the Raj era.

Scientific management of a species is a more complex and long drawn affair than our current political and wildlife managers want to believe. Each species adapts to the habitat and to the vagaries of nature. Animals can even control their reproduction during periods of drought. They are known to even delay the birth and at times completely skip it. If the number of animals goes beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat, then nature takes its own recourse. It is a hypothetical situation, that the lions relocated to Kuno multiply rapidly and a few of them later compete with tigers for prey and get killed. Before we consider tiger and lions fighting with each other, we should look into the prey base in the Kuno-palanpur area. The records from our various forests during the British era clearly show us that high prey density leads to increase number of tigers in a smaller area. The range of a tiger increases when the prey density is less. So technically, a given area can house tiger as well as lions if the prey density is good. It should be mentioned that there were times when our wildlife managers wanted dholes to be killed, as they thought pack of dholes can kill tigers or compete with prey for tigers. Today, their coexistence proves the fallacy of those theories.

It is also a fact that there are no reports of tigers staying permanently in Kuno. So the apprehension of conflict between lions and tigers is highly unlikely and should not be held as a justification to stop the relocation of lions from Gir to Kuno.

There are apprehensions, that relocation of lions from Gir to Kuno is likely to divert the tourists to Madhya Pradesh. Gujarat will have the single largest population of lions, if a disaster doesn’t strike. Hence the apprehension that tourists will go to Madhya Pradesh is unfounded. Today, Dudhwa has got rhinos from Assam, however, Assam is still known for the one horned rhinos and tourists flock to Kaziranga for a glimpse of the rhinos.
Love and Pride Vis--vis Conservation:

The people of Gujarat have immense pride and a sense of ownership in the Lion. This pride is not likely to be hurt if a second home for lion is created in another state. Also the unique identity of Gujarat as the only abode of lions won’t be hurt as it will always have the largest number of lions. It might not be out of place to mention that the Assam, which was similarly known for its one horned rhino’s, had agreed to send a few of those to Dudhwa in Uttar Pradesh to establish another home and to derisk and ensure the rhino’s long term survival. A parent is always willing to send his or her offspring away from home in search of livelihood or better career prospects. Why not in case of lions? Are lions less important than our children?

Instead of making it a competition between two states, there should be collaboration to ensure that the Gir lions find a second home. A task force should be formed to relocate the lions to Kuno and Officials from the Gujarat Forest department with adequate knowledge about lion behaviour should be sent on long term deputation to ensure the success of this initiative. There should be extensive knowledge sharing at all levels, including knowledge sharing among villagers if required. It is believed that the Nawab of Junagarh had got Siddis from Ethiopia to look after the lions. We can always learn from our past successes.

The relocation of lions from Gir in Gujarat to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh is not just an issue between two states. Nevertheless, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh being ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is expected that this issue would have been amicably resolved instead of being debated in the court. I am hopeful that ultimately statesmanship will prevail over narrow regionalism. I am sure, the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Gujarat would not only agree to the proposal for relocating lions, but also ensure availability of knowledgeable officers for this cause.
To further discuss on this topic, you may share your views here:

Wilderness Updates:
Our forests are in whose hands?

During the Emergency period, Mrs. Indira Gandhi had brought the forests into the Concurrent list and it remains there till date.

A recent case increases the complexity further. The Karnataka High Court’s order had ensured that the road passing through Bandipur Tiger Reserve remains closed during the night. There have been vociferous protests from various lobbies to this move, especially from the transporters and the state of Kerla. However, there have been records of deaths of wild animals due to accidents in this road (though not by the forest department). Due to populist pressure, the Karnataka Cabinet had taken a decision to lift the ban on night time traffic in this road. However, the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka had stayed this order. Recently, the Union Surface transport ministry has claimed that all the National Highways are under its jurisdiction, and the state has no right to ban or regulate traffic. Further developments in this matter are awaited. You can voice your views here:

Wildlife Photography:
I am sharing a few links to some of the fine images shared by our members:
Under The Watchfull Eyes Of Leopard’s by Vishwanath M K

Building Nest by Mrudul Godbole

Ashy Prinia by Sadananda Koppalkar

It’s the drift now by Bhargav Narayan

Black Kite by Praveen Siddannavar

Greater Spotted Eagle by Mrudul Godbole

Sunrise from kundadri mountain by Dr. Hari Venkatesh K R

Mistic Vapour by Mohan Raj

An interesting moth by Hari Iyer

Indian Palm Squirrels mating by Siddharth Gogoi

Equipment Discussions:
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV – Hands on Review:
Photographers and gear heads may like to view how the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV fares in the wilds of India. My first impressions after more than a month of testing can be found here.

Look forward to your inputs and your support in preserving the last tracts of wilderness and wildlife left in this beautiful country. For other interesting articles and photographs please check:

Sabyasachi Patra
Twitter: indiawilds
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(Circulated in February 2010)

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