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In the name of Gujarat's pride

By Rajiv Shah
Eight years ago, addressing a gathering of state forest officials at the sprawling campus of the Gujarat Forestry Research and Training Complex in the state capital, Gandhinagar, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi seemed a little unsettled. A few mediapersons too were present, and I happened to be one of them. On April 28, 2005, Modi was confronted with this ticklish query: Will Gir no longer be the only habitat of the Asiatic lion, often addressed as the “Pride of Gujarat”? Announcing that the Asiatic lion's population had risen to 359, a rise of 32 in five years, Modi seemed to feel it was enough to seek publicity on how animal conservation under him had taken new strides – at a time when he had already invited enough ire for failing to conserve the human during the Gujarat riots.
Puzzled by the query, he looked around, but no official dared tell him the truth. Refusing to take a stand on the issue (the Gujarat government for several years had been fighting against the “expert” suggestion to shift lions to Madhya Pradesh), Modi seemed to sing a different tune – the “matter was wide open”, he declared. This is what he said, even as forest officials looked at each other in bewilderment: “There are two opposing views on the issue held by experts and there seems to be no meeting point. The matter remains unsettled. ” Soon after Modi's statement, an embarrassed chief wildlife warden, Pradeep Khanna, asked me “not to report on what Modi had said”, as he believed the “CM had not been briefed properly on the matter.” Khanna also felt, if reported, “those who are in favour of shifting a few lions to Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh would get a chance to oppose Gujarat's declared stand against shifting any lions.”
Eight years later, things have taken full circle, with Modi presiding frantic meetings in Gandhinagar on how to “protect” the Pride of Gujarat from leaving its homeland. He has lost a legal battle in the Supreme Court, which wants a complete plan to be prepared on shifting Asiatic lions to Madhya Pradesh to give them a second home. The apex court judgment is no different from what the Wildlife Institute of India, DehraDun, had said a decade ago on shifting a few lions from Gir. It felt that confining lions to one area could leave them “vulnerable to biological, climatic or man-made catastrophes like epidemic or natural disaster.” It took the view that the Gir protected area had begun to “burst at its seams”, with lions straying out of the national park and the sanctuary. While the state forest officials' stated position was that the lion was only straying out to its “earlier held territory” which he had lost over the years, insiders had a totally different view to tell.
In fact, talking to local forest officials of Gir, it seemed clear that the Asiatic lion was moving out of its territory out of desperation, not to regain the lost territory. I must have visited the Gir protected area thrice, and every time, I would ask local foresters one question: What's the reason for the lions to stray away from the national park and the sanctuary? After all, the Gujarat government wants local inhabitants, maldharis, to shift from Gir so that there is no man-animal conflict. Shouldn't the Asiatic lion feel safer? To my utter surprise, almost every local forester told me that the effort to shift out the maldharis from the Gir had actually accelerated the pace of lions moving out the protected area and straying southwards, towards the Saurashtra coast. “The lions, over the years, had got used to prey on the maldharis' buffaloes. They are moving out of the forest area for no other reason but in search of their lost prey”, is what one of them told me.
Another forester was more forthright: “The Asiatic lion, over time, has become docile. He does not believe in running after a dear. In fact, he has learned how not to struggle hard for the prey, as he believes getting buffaloes is so very easy. All this happened as the maldharis would set free old, uneconomical buffaloes, which would particularly become the most easy prey.” Another forester, who drove me into the “no man's land”, national park, in his diesel jeep, added, “We foresters, in fact, have contributed in making the lion docile. No lion censuses have been held without tying up buffaloes, allowing them to be made an easy prey.” He even gave a certain number of buffaloes which were bought from the maldharis for the purpose, though adding, “Don't report it. This has been kept a guarded secret, as it is banned to use buffaloes like this”, he declared.
Ironically, the government effort to shift out the maldharis in the name of overcoming man-animal conflict is in sharp contrast to the way the government allows religious tourists to reach two shrines inside the protected area – Kankai and Tulsi Shyam temples. A decade ago, I was told, a total of 75,000 people visited these shrines in a year. Now, with Amibabh Bacchan ads propagating Gir as a tourist spot, the numbers would have multiplied. My visit to Kankai, bordering the “no man's land”, Gir national park, about five years ago suggested that “tourists” were not only allowed to live there overnight. They came in hordes, all in diesel jeeps and cars, singing aloud all the way!
More recently, a Geneva-based scholar has revealed, almost on the lines of the local foresters, how application of western norms of biodiversity conservation on the Gir forest actually forced the lion to move out of the protected area. Writing in “Asia and Europe Bulletin” of the University of Zurich, Prof Shalini Randeria, who chairs the anthropology and sociology department at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, has suggested how “displacement” and “dispossession” of the forest dwellers of Gir ensured that the buffaloes too moved out of the forest, making the King of Jungle to follow suit.
An ethnic Gujarati, Randheria says, her “ethnographic material generated in the Gir forest, which was home to a World Bank-funded biodiversity conservation programme”, suggested that “pastoralists” in fact made their own positive contribution “to conservation, including their intimate knowledge of, and care for their surroundings, as well as the symbiotic relationship between their buffaloes and the lions that prey on the herds of cattle.”
Criticizing “Euro-American ideology of ‘protected areas', she says, “Among its assumptions is an antagonism between the rights of nature and those of local inhabitants. The expansion of protected areas thus leads to the conversion of inhabited forests into uninhabited national parks”, which turns forest dwellers “into encroachers, illegal residents and lawbreakers” in their own homeland. The result has been disastrous: “The Asiatic lions’ survival in the Gir forest depended on a delicate ecological balance, maintained by the presence of the pastoral communities’ buffaloes. With the displacement of the cattle and their owners, the lions were forced to move further out into the sanctuary area and beyond in search of prey. Some lions had to be shot when they began to prey on cattle in the villages around the Gir forest, even turning into man-eaters on occasion.”
If what Randheria's argument is correct, would the newly-created future home for the Asiatic lion, Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, be safe for the Pride of Gujarat? Let experts ponder.
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https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/true-lies/in-the-name-of-gujarat-s-pride/

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