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Are Lion Tailed Macaque More Fortunate than Panna Tigers: A Tale of Two Projects

Almost a  year after the Karnataka high court stayed the project that had further threatened the already endangered lion tailed macaque (LTM) ((Macaca silenus), endemic to the Sharavathi river valley nestled in the Western Ghats; the sword of Damocles continues to hang over the primates. The Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) had launched a geothermal survey  with heavy machines to ascertain if the 2000 MW underground pump storage hydro-electric project was feasible. Besides LTM, the Sharavathi river valley is also home to a diverse array of species and sustains very rich biodiversity. Though the  court stay continues, the south Indian state has not yet withdrawn the project. For the time being, the power project may not have been in the priority list of the government after the change in the political guard, it continues to stare at LTM menacingly. Sharavathi Valley, a Jewel in the Western Ghats The project was proposed within the core area of 902 sq km in the Sharavathi Valle

Fate of Lion project unknown midst Cheetah translocation in Kuno

Nobody is talking about this issue. What would be the fate of the much awaited Lion project in Kuno Palpur national park where preparations are in full swing to welcome cheetahs, the fastest animal on  the earth.  The MP government is tightlipped over the issue and  so are the IFS ( Indian Forest Service) community of the state . Eight cheetahs  from Namibia and South Africa are expected to be airlifted to Kuno , nestled  in Sheopur district about 390 kms  away from Bhopal ,in November this year. Five male cheetahs and three females will be donated by Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) of South Africa.

Work on to Welcome Cheetah

There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm in the state eversince the Supreme Court approved the project in January 2020.A three-member committee comprising former director Wildlife of India Ranjit Singh, DG of Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Dhananjay Mohan and DIG, Wildlife, Union ministry of Environment and Forests to guide the National Tiger Conservation Authority in translocation of the African cheetah to India. The cheetahs would be released in a five square km enclosure in Kuno. Construction work of  the  enclosure is yet to be completed.  

“Since beginning Kuno was managed to receive Asiatic lions and never seen from the cheetah prospective, most of the evacuated crop fields are now taken over by many woody plant species such as Ziziphus nummularia, Acacia leucophloea and other woody shrubs and non-palatable grasses such as Desmostachya bipinnata among others”,  said a wildlife biologist actively involved with Kuno since 1999 when the villages were shifted to make way for lion. Now to welcome cheetahs, work for grass land management and  removal of some invasive plants  is being carried out in Kuno. Dr Vincent van der Merve, Cheetah Meta-population coordinator of the EWT in South Africa  along with Dr YV Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had already visited  the park in April this year and “found it suitable for the introduction of Cheetahs from Africa.”

But Why Experts are Skeptical

Though no one is speaking openly, many wildlife experts are skeptical over the project. As Kuno was being prepared for lion , there has been a slow ecological elimination of probably the most preferred catchable prey- Chinkara - for cheetahs. Now chinkara can be rarely sighted in Kuno. Two small populations of Blackbuck reported from Poh ki Nimai and Manak Chowk area of Kuno have already been eliminating in ecological succession, the biologist who has workd closely in Kuno said.  “Once seen in large group size, cheetal or the spotted deer is now seen in small groups due to continuous loss of open large grassland. Therefore Kuno is not a site to see successful introduction of cheetah”, experts claimed. But park authorities denied this and said there were over 7000 chinkaras and more than 2000 black bucks in the park. 

Besides, the 748 sq km area of Kuno is also not considered as enough for Cheetahs, known for running fast to make kills. Unlike African jungles  this is being considered as a small area. Size of Kruger national park in South Africa is 19,485 sq kms while Bwabwata National Park in northeastern Namibia covers 6,274 sq km, almost ten times bigger than Kuno. Sources said that a  prey- predator survey in Kuno was carried out in 2018 and a fresh survey is recommended.  But sources in Kuno said that there was “enough” prey base in the area where the   Cheetahs would be released. After some acclimatization, they will be released in the open.

 Is It Goodbye to Project Lion

Waiting for over two decades, Kuno Palpur , now a national park since April 2020 , awaits lions .After spending over Rs 100 crore  in the shifting of  over 25  villages from Kuno and  rehabilitation of about 10,000  families, the result is zero. 

Gujrat continues to be in denial mode to part with a pair of lions to Kuno which is spread over 748 sq km area.  Forest department of Madhya Pradesh said,” we still believe that lions would be translocated in Kuno. Gir in Gujarat is overloaded with the predators and any  disease  may wipe out the whole population”.  As far as Kuno is concerned,  like in Africa, lions and cheetahs can coexist here, they said. But skeptics believe  that  “ forget about lions for atleast  five more years” when the authorities in Kuno would be busy in Cheetah conservation and another big experiment like translocation of lions  will not be possible in the same space. So is it  Good bye to Project Lion ? No one  has any answer. 
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