Translocating some lions from Gujarat's Gir sanctuary -- the home of the endangered Asiatic lion -- to the Kuno wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh to save the big cat could mean people trouble. …

-- (Credit: Arvind Yadav / CSE)The lion can be heard prowling at night, near the livestock enclosure. In the morning, we are woken up by blasting in the limestone mines surrounding the fields. The lion eats only when it is hungry. But the factory (the Ambuja Cement Factory beyond the mines) never stops eating.

--- Residents of Navagam village, Amreli district, Gujarat.

The forest will soon reverberate not to the roar of the lions but to the sound of the pickaxe and drilling machines. The land that sustains our cattle will turn bone white and the cattle will die.

--- Tribals in the Saddhebeda ness in Devalia, Gir sanctuary, Gujarat.

ABOUT 1,000 km away from the Gir sanctuary, in the remote grasslands of the Sheopur forest division in Madhya Pradesh's Morena district, tribals have noticed an increase lately in the number of government vehicles. Their age-old suspicion of outsiders is vindicated when they discover that forest guards have warned the residents of Tiktauli village in the Sheopur forest division that they may all have to move out of the forest: an ambitious project to translocate part of the lion population from coastal Gir to the Kuno wildlife sanctuary in the Sheopur division is on.

To this land, where the last lion was shot over 100 years ago, the beast is soon to be restored: this time, radio-collared and accompanied by high-tech gadgetry for its protection. The Central government project -- conceived by researchers in the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun -- is meant to ensure the survival of the Asiatic lion, now balanced on the razor's edge of extinction.

Wildlife and people are now seen as mutually exclusive species, and resurrecting the lion here means emptying 700 sq km of about 7,500 forest-dwellers to form a national park. Local grassroots developmental organisations warn that moving out the Sahariyas from the forests could endanger the tribals' existence.

Adds Ahmedabad-based environment lawyer Girish Patel, "For the protection of the lion, thousands of Maldharis living traditionally in the Gir forest area were evacuated by the government and reduced to penury. This pattern of injustice is to be repeated in Kuno."

And in Gir, people's representatives say that the lion is seen as the only buffer for the protection of the forests. A reduction in its population, or downplaying the importance of the forest as the last home of the Asiatic lion in the continent, could see the life-supporting forests being swallowed up by the mineral-based industry.
Big cat blues There were only 20 Asiatic lions in the Gir forest at the beginning of this century. This fragile population has been nursed to nearly 300 today by a fiercely protective conservation strategy initiated by the Nawab of Junagadh in 1900.

"When all the members of an endangered species exist at a single site, the threats to their survival increase," says WII scientist Ravi Chellam in his report on the survey of potential sites for reintroduction of the Asiatic lion, submitted to the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) in December last year. Catastrophes such as an epidemic, fires or a cyclone, could seriously deplete or even wipe out the Asiatic lion population.

Inbreeding among the small surviving population makes the Gir lion more vulnerable to disease and genetic disorders. With the lions recently straying away from Gir and establishing small pockets in neighbouring areas like the Girnar and the Mitiyala forests in Bhavnagar district, wildlife researchers feel that the sanctuary has reached the limits of its carrying capacity. They warn that an increase in the lion population could mean territorial quarrels among the beasts, who require home range sizes of about 150 sq km each, and also greater conflicts with humans as more livestock is killed and villagers mauled. "Establishing a second free-ranging population is thus amply justified," claims the WII report.

The translocation plan is now being put forward with speed. A core group comprising Union and state government authorities, WII experts and representatives of local NGOs and universities is being set up to monitor the translocation.

Out of several alternate sites, including 2 in Rajasthan, Kuno was selected because of its forest habitat, which closely corresponds to Gir -- dry, deciduous forest and thorn savannah and relatively low human and livestock pressure.

The WII report states that portions of the 350 sq km Kuno sanctuary could be combined with the surrounding forest to form a 700 sq km national park. This implies relocating the 7,400 people living in 19 villages and a halt to livestock grazing in the area.

At a meeting held on January 11 in Bhopal between the state administration and MEF officials, a resettlement site near Agra village on the fringe of the sanctuary was discussed. Says L K Choudhary, divisional forest officer, Sheopur, "The relocation site has scanty forest growth so the villagers will be encouraged to practise agriculture."

For villages like Karahal, Panwara and Moraval that will fall in the proposed buffer zone and which support 15,000-20,000 people, Choudhary says, "To reduce the people's present dependence on the forest for grazing livestock, lifting wood and collection of minor forest produce, an alternate mode of livelihood will be developed by strengthening agriculture and imparting basic education to enable villagers to find better jobs elsewhere."

Troubled locations
Although eager to receive the lions, the MP government is anticipating trouble ahead. Says MP principal chief conservator of forests, N J Oka, in Bhopal, "Relocation will cost at least Rs 20 crore and there are sure to be protests from local NGOs."

Says M N Buch, chairperson of the Bhopal-based National Centre for Human Settlement and Environment, "Introducing the lions could be disastrous because Kuno is tiger country" Besides, he feels that "translocation is an experiment with a fair chance of failure". He points to an attempt in 1957 to introduce 3 lions in the Chandraprabha sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh that ended in the mysterious disappearance of the big cats.

Meanwhile, members of the Ekta Parishad, an NGO working with tribals, declare, "The tribals will not be able to cope with eviction from the forests and with an occupational change." About 90 per cent of the people in the area are Sahariya tribals, a forest-gatherer community that makes a living mainly by collecting and selling medicinal plants and herbs.

Breaking the Sahariyas' bond with the forest to accommodate the lions is a perpetuation of the tribals' growing alienation from the land, caused by official conservation strategies, says Kailash Parashar, curator of a Sahariya museum in Sheopur that showcases the distinctive tribal culture. He points out that the wholly forest-dependent Sahariyas, once responsible for developing and maintaining the forests, must now buy wood from the town to meet even basic needs like making beds.

Changes for the better
But officials such as D C Mittal, tehsildar, Karahal block, reason, "The tribals presently live on the verge of starvation. The change to agriculture will most likely be for the better."

Villagers in Kuno have been promised irrigated agricultural land in the resettlement site near Agra village. Says Sugra, a tribal woman, "The minister (Congress member of the Legislative Assembly Ram Niwas Rawat) assured us of land pattas (land ownership deeds) in the new site in Agra, drinking water and electricity."

However, government schemes, like the Sahariya Vikas Abhikaran, promised much the same. "That relocation and fresh promises will not succeed in improving the people's lives can be judged from the number of government schemes already operating for tribal welfare and the crores of rupees allocated for them. The Sahariyas are some of the poorest people in MP," contends Jaisingh Yadav, coordinator, Ekta Parishad, Sheopur.

Mittal, too, acknowledges that "over half the handpumps installed by the government in all tribal villages are out of order and electricity is supplied for less than 12 hours a day". Sheopur MLA Ram Shankar Bhardwaj points out that cattle given on grant are mostly weak and unproductive. Similarly, subsidised wheat supplied to the tribals is of ridiculously poor quality.

About Rs 12 crore have been spent on providing 20 pucca houses in each tribal village under the Indira Awas Kutir and Gramin Vikas Kutir programmes, but the buildings remain empty. In Moraval village, most of them are used to house cattle, while traditional Sahariya huts have been built alongside others.

"The abandoned pucca houses are testimony that even the limited government aid that reaches the people is ineffective because it is not tailored to their requirements," states Yadav. "The government house is too big and I would be isolated from the community living in it because it is so far from the sahara (the tribals traditionally dwell in a close group of 10-15 huts)," says Rati Devi of Moraval, who has abandoned the pucca house her family built 2 years ago with a government grant.

Segregated living quarters
The DFO also warns, "People of all communities must live together in Agra to save space." At present, each village has carefully segregated living quarters for different communities. Intermixing them could lead to quarrels.

Bhardwaj states that government welfare programmes have bombed largely due to corruption and because "instead of schemes to make them economically self-reliant, the large number of grants have only given the people free low quality benefits which they cannot value." It is most likely that a policy of rural "development" with all these proven shortcomings will be extended to villagers at the resettlement site, fears Yadav of the Ekta Parishad, and combined with loss of the forests, adaptation might be impossible.

On the other hand, pastoral Maldharis of Saurashtra like Khemakanabhai Karamta fear that by removing lions from these forests, "the government is not allowing us more space but giving entry to industries". Also afraid of being squeezed out are owners and cultivators of the rich agricultural land and mango orchards surrounding the Gir forests.

Says Chandrasinh Mahida, convenor, Saurashtra Paryavaran Sanrakshan Parishad, which is spearheading a movement against the industrialisation of the nagher area (coastal area of Saurashtra stretching from Madhavpur in Junagadh district to Jaffrabad in Amreli district), "The Maldharis are being driven out of the forests. Now, large mineral-based industries have surveyed the forest area for mining and there is political pressure on the forest department to give land for the purpose. The government is using the lion as a pawn to achieve its own ends."

No political leader in the state has come out in opposition to the lions' translocation move although local resentment against it is growing, "because politicians cutting across party lines have vested interests in the industries, all of which are desperately looking for avenues to expand prospecting into the forest," claims Mahida.

Twentyseven big industries have come up in areas surrounding Gir in the past 5 years. The Saurashtra region is estimated to hold limestone reserves of 1,150 crore tonnes, and most of the state's 70 crore tonne reserve of lignite is found in the region. Both limestone and lignite are used in cement production. The area is also rich in minerals such as bauxite, chalk and dolomite.

Mineral-based industrial development has already led to environmental changes, affecting the farm sector, groundwater and the health of the people. "About 15,000 ha in Saurashtra have been acquired by industries from farmers by dubious means," says Mahida, "and extensive areas that were once fertile croplands or gauchar (pasturelands) have been converted into wasteland by mining." Farmers in about 40 villages have been forced to leave the area following acquisition of land by industries for limestone mining, says Mahida.

The villagers of Navagam in Amreli district have moved the High Court against the sale of about 6 ha of agricultural land in the village by its trustees in Lok Bharati, a registered NGO, to the nearby Gujarat Ambuja cement factory for quarrying limestone. But sarpanch Dhirubhai points to the trucks and heavy machinery rumbling past constantly. "We can only sell our lands and move away eventually," he says.

While Kanubhai Domadia, president of the Junagadh district unit of the Western Gujarat Chamber of Industries, which represents 40 industrial houses, states that the Rs 8,000 crore industrial investment in the region has given jobs to 40,000 locals, Mahida claims that the workers are largely outsiders.

The extensive mining of limestone, a porous rock that helps in the natural recharge of groundwater, "will soon turn the area into a desert, when combined with the natural increasing salinity of the soil," fear workers of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. Forest officials in Junagadh confirm the falling groundwater table in areas surrounding the forests, adding that the cultivation of water-intensive crops could be a contributory factor.

Instead, Mahida suggests promoting agro-based industries related to major crops such as sugarcane, groundnut and coconut, fish processing industries or leather processing units, given the area's cattle wealth.

Ecological benefits
Resentment against the lions' translocation is strong also because the the forests provide ecological benefits, says Shankar Narayanan of the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Ecology Commission. Gir and surrounding areas receive perceptibly higher rainfall than the rest of Saurashtra (Gir: 950 mm annually; Junagadh district: 750 mm annually). "Water-intensive crops such as sugarcane are the mainstay of farmers in a relatively low rainfall region that is also drought-prone," he says.The Siddhis, who make a living by collecting and selling fallen wood, fear that a decline in lion population could lead to an explosion of the herbivore population which could strip the forest bare, says Irbai of Jambur village.

The translocation plan leaves even forest officials glum. Says B L Gupta, deputy conservator of forests, Junagadh, "The natural dispersal of lions from Gir sanctuary could mean an extension of the habitat suitable for lions, not a saturation of the sanctuary's carrying capacity. Instead of artificially introducing lions elsewhere, the entire ecosystem around Gir could be developed on the lines of Girnar to accommodate the growing population."

Gir officials also anticipate hitches in plan implementation, particularly those who were excluded from participating. Says H S Singh, conservator of forests, wildlife circle, Junagadh, "We received formal intimation of the plan only when the WII report was sent to us in mid-January along with a request to comment on the time-frame of implementation."

He, however, feels that Madhya Pradesh could learn from the experiences of protected area management in Gir to avoid similar mistakes. But as far as the people are concerned, the mistake has already been made.

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