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Prep Before Cheetahs Become Free Ranging In Kuno National Park

  When another male cheetah, Obaan,joined the two rock stars – Freddie and Elton -- in yet another bigger enclosure of Kuno national park on November 18, only five female cheetahs remained in smaller bomas in the park where they were released on September 17. Like the three males, the five female spotted cats will also be released soon in larger bomas to run and chase their prey to kill. India’s  wildlife authorities accompanied by the experts from the cheetah conservation fund (CCF) from Namibia   have been taking utmost care and caution  before the  cheetahs in Kuno are ultimately made “free -ranging” meaning released in open to move around the entire length and breadth of the park. “Free ranging cheetahs and their monitoring  will be like a grand finale of the Project Cheetah to be played in Kuno for a longer  period in the coming years'", said a senior official of the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFC&C).  Apprehensions, Concerns  on Chee

Problem Of Plenty: Gir Lions Turn Scavengers As Deadly Virus Stares

In the times of coronavirus, wildlife experts  in the country are  extremely concerned over another virus. Canine Distemper Virus or the CDV-– the dreaded pathogen that has already killed a large number of lions in Gir forest in Gujarat , the only home to  the Asiatic lions in the world.  The CVD has already killed 1,000 lions, or a third of the population in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in 1994.

“Given that it is (the Asiatic lions in Gir) already an inbred population with much reduced genetic diversity, they have to be managed even more carefully,” experts have already warned.

Besides CDV , Gir National Park  and Sanctuary faces a number of threats to its ecosystem. They include recurrent drought, cyclones, and forest fires ,overgrazing, encroachment and excessive traffic among others .  There are a number of other threats including mining in the peripherals zone, pollution resulting from the railway lines that also run through the peripheral zone. Above all, the narrow   genetic base in lions is of growing concern for the wildlife experts.

And amidst all this, while refusing to part with a pair of  lions,  Gujarat  says, “ lions are safe in Gir, doesn’t require a second home.”

Kuno Palpur , now a national park since April this year, awaits these lions for long. The government has spent over Rs 100 crore  in the shifting of  over 25  villages from Kuno and  rehabilitation of about 10,000  families. But Gujarat always refused to part with a pair of lion. Spread over 748 sq km area, Kuno is located in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh bordering Rajasthan and was accorded the status of a national park in April this year.

After dilly -dallying by Gujarat and a petition in the Supreme Court, in April 2013, the Court asked the Union government to translocate some lions to Kuno. It said, while hearing a petition, the Asiatic lions existed in a single sub-population and were vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events, such as an epidemic and a large forest fire et al.

“An outbreak of possible epidemic or natural calamity might wipe off the entire species. A smaller population with limited genetic strength is more vulnerable to diseases and other catastrophes in comparison to large and widespread populations,” the court said.

Apprehensions are coming true

Following the deaths of almost 24 Asiatic lions in Gir in  September 2018, the apprehensions turned out to be true. A wildlife biologist who closely works with the Union Environment Ministry on wildlife surveys said that the canine distemper virus (CDV) that killed at least 36 lions in Gir, Gujarat in 2018 had not ebbed. There have also been several more deaths from the virus  this year since January but no official data was  shared by Gujarat. But  Gujarat insiders  put the number to “ more than 25 deaths this year ”. Gujarat officials said that the virus was an issue in 2018 but this year, they did not get any report  of such deaths.

 

The virus is endemic in livestock and periodically infects lions so only large-scale vaccination of livestock could be of some help.

Beyond wildlife, lion translocation is also a political issue. Over the years, Gujarat has bitterly contested sending lions to the alternate sanctuary of Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh.

The Ministry of Environment and Forest initiated the project for translocating Asiatic lions on the recommendation of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which feared the growing lion population in the limited space of Gir may lead to inbreeding and make the lions vulnerable to epidemics. A huge exercise of vaccination dogs   in the villages near Kuno Park was already on to thwart off the threat of CVD, if any.

 Poonam Avlokan: Gujarat’s Lion Census exercise

 

When the CVD continues to stare at the  lion population  confined in one place , its numbers are increasing .  Recent data  released by  Gujarat government  shows 674 lions in Gir landscape , a 28% rise from 2015. Gujarat uses an “unscientific exercise” – to quote wildlife experts - known as Poonam Avlokan , carried on every  full moon . In fact is a monthly in-house exercise carried out every full moon night.  This year it  covered 10 districts where lion movements have been recorded in recent years, and 13 forest divisions. The field staff and officers spend 24 hours assessing the number of lions and their locations in their respective jurisdictions.  This exercise is different as, instead of remaining stationary at water points, teams keep moving in their respective territories and make their estimates based on inputs provided by lion trackers and on chance sightings.

Wildlife experts like Yadvendra Jhala feel such methods would not “stand the scrutiny of modern science”.  This year, from June 5-6, department officials monitored the numbers of the lions. The process involved 1,400 personnel, about 600 less because of the pandemic.

Wildlife experts are not convinced with this method of census and feel that there were all the chances of either overcounting or under counting of the giant beast. They are of the opinion that modern methods like camera trapping or statistical estimates based on the animals’ predatory patterns and numbers of their prey base would  have a scientific approach and the results would be more reliable. Interestingly, Gujarat has never allowed the WildlifeInstitute of India (WII)  to hold  census lie what is being done in the case of tigers

After the census , the prime minister Narendra Modi  who was the chief minister of Gujarat   for a long period till 2014 and did not allow the lions to be translocated to Kuno  ,informed the nation  about the results  of Poonam Avlokan .

Wildlife experts even “ suspect” that this year the number of lions observed could even be more but it is deliberately being  placed “ on the downside” . “Higher number of lions would have exerted pressure again on Gujarat to share them with MP for  translocation in Kuno”.

Gujarat forest department however claimed that it follows all the prescribed protocol while carrying out the census. They  said camera traps were not yet suitable for lions because of the absence of unique tiger features of its stripes.

Lions turn scavengers, feed on cattle carcass

Over 60% of the lions  are estimated  to be living outside the protected area and increasing  numbers  is a matter of grave concern. As they multiply , the free-ranging lions wander farther in search of territory. A WII study shows that lionesses in human-dominated landscapes need a minimum of 4 sq km of sacrosanct forest patch to rear cubs in concealment. Besides, the carnivore needs almost 10 kg of meat every day? How would it get it. The livestock  in the villages and the  cattle carcass   seem to be the only answer.

The WII says that the number of villages where lions kill livestock is increasing by about 100 each year. If compensation isn’t revised regularly and its distribution isn’t as prompt as it is now, pastoral farmers will suffer severe losses and may not be as tolerant of lions anymore.

According to the 2015 lion census, the lion population grew by 126 % outside the Gir Protected Area .A consistent growth in lion population would have serious implications both for the man and the animal. Research also shows that lions outside the protected areas (PAs) have learnt to navigate human settlements and market places at night avoiding humans  as they look for  cattle carcasses at gaushalas . Experts said that this  “ tendency of scavenging” may even lead to a situation when some cubs may not learn how to hunt because of easy availability of  the food.  This also leads to the danger of CVD  as dogs also tend to feed on these carcasses and if they carry any infections, they can transmit them to lions.

Experts explain that lions prey on livestock because forest patches that can support wild ungulates are too few in human-dominated landscape and livestock is the most readily available prey “This brings them in direct conflict with humans and their property.

What Next

Now that Kuno Palpur  has also been accorded the status of a National Park,  there should be no further delay in translocation of the lions. The expert committee has suggested a four-phase plan for the reintroduction of lions in Kuno which involves organisational commitments, ecological monitoring and quantifying carrying capacity of lion reintroduction, followed by capture, translocation and soft release of lions in Kuno. Post-reintroduction monitoring and research, conflict mitigation will be  followed with an annual review of the project.

The first three phases would be undertaken over a period of two years, after which, upto the next 20 years or so the plan highlights genetic management and  supplementation, under which six lions (two males and four females) should be supplemented in the Kuno population from Gir until 16-20 years from the first reintroduction at an interval of 4 years.  But things are not moving ahead as the SC appointed expert Committee meeting recommendations have been implemented but the committee has not met for the past 2 years to take a decision on the much awaited translocation.

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