India Today - - GIR LIONS - —Rahul Noronha

What hap­pens when mis­placed parochial pride comes in the way of sav­ing an al­most ex­tinct species? The plan to set up a sec­ond home for Asi­atic lions was first mooted dur­ing a con­fer­ence in Vado­dara in 1993. A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, noth­ing has hap­pened on the ground. Soon af­ter the 1993 con­fer­ence, the Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia (WII), Dehradun, con­ducted com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies at Dar­rah and Si­ta­mata sanc­tu­ar­ies in Ra­jasthan and Palpur-Kuno sanc­tu­ary in Mad­hya Pradesh, be­fore ze­ro­ing in on the lat­ter. In 1997, the MP gov­ern­ment be­gan mov­ing out vil­lages within Palpur-Kuno. By 2001, 1,546 fam­i­lies from the 24 vil­lages in­hab­ited by the Sa­hariya sched­uled tribe com­mu­nity had been moved out, cre­at­ing an in­vi­o­late area of 1,250 sq. km in the form of the Kuno Wildlife Di­vi­sion in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the ar­rival of the lions.

How­ever, Gu­jarat re­fused to share the lions, ob­fus­cat­ing the is­sue with nu­mer­ous ob­jec­tions. Fi­nally, in April 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that a few lions be shifted to Palpur-Kuno and the ex­er­cise be com­pleted in six months. The Union min­istry for en­vi­ron­ment and forests (MoEF) was asked to over­see the task and set up an ex­pert com­mit­tee for the pur­pose. Now, five-and-a-half years later, all that the MoEF has to show is an ex­pert com­mit­tee with mem­bers from the WII, NGOs and wildlife wings of Gu­jarat and MP.

More lit­i­ga­tion fol­lowed af­ter the 2013 ver­dict. The Gu­jarat gov­ern­ment filed re­view and cu­ra­tive pe­ti­tions, both of which were dis­missed by the court.

WII ex­perts have sug­gested mov­ing 8-10 lions in the first batch to PalpurKuno and aug­ment­ing it with four lions ev­ery four years based on a re­view of the first translo­ca­tion. Gu­jarat’s ob­jec­tion to the trans­fer of lions on grounds that Kuno is un­safe sounds all the more base­less in light of the fact that 184 lions have died in the state—as stated in the Gu­jarat as­sem­bly—in the past two years due to elec­tro­cu­tion, drown­ing and train hits.

So why haven’t the lions been shifted? Gu­jarat’s stand is clear, but MP’s pur­suance of the project at the po­lit­i­cal level has been half-hearted at best. CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan is on record ques­tion­ing why his state is so keen to get lions when it is al­ready blessed with tigers. At state wildlife board meet­ings, the CM’s ex­treme dis­in­ter­est is ev­i­dent.

The CM’s pusil­lan­i­mous at­ti­tude seems to do with his boss Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s stand on the is­sue: that he would fight tooth and nail to not share lions with MP. More than five years af­ter the SC or­der, the MP gov­ern­ment has not gone to the court cit­ing con­tempt. It was left to a pri­vate cit­i­zen to do so. In 2014, MP-based wildlife ac­tivist Ajay Dubey filed a con­tempt pe­ti­tion that was fi­nally dis­posed of in March 2018 af­ter the MoEF told the court the process of im­ple­ment­ing the court’s or­der was in progress. “I will move a con­tempt pe­ti­tion again,” says Dubey. “The Cen­tre needs to stop think­ing like the gov­ern­ment of Gu­jarat and think as the gov­ern­ment of In­dia. The lion is a na­tional her­itage, nar­row parochial­ism is the big­gest threat it faces.”

The big­gest im­ped­i­ment now is the MoEF, which in many in­stances has sup­ported the de­lay­ing tac­tics of Gu­jarat. “Gu­jarat wants a num­ber of stud­ies done be­fore translo­ca­tion, and some of these stud­ies will take 20 years to do. These are noth­ing but de­lay­ing tac­tics,” says Dr Y.V. Jhala of the WII.

Wildlife au­thor­i­ties in MP sound help­less. “Lion translo­ca­tion is a cen­tral project. We have up­graded Kuno from a sanc­tu­ary to a na­tional park. It is up to the MoEF to get the lions from Gu­jarat,” says chief wildlife war­den, MP, Shah­baz Ahmed.

GATE­WAY TO NOWHERE The en­trance to the Palpur-Kuno sanc­tu­ary

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