Union govt was aware of high mortality even as PM Modi played up rise in count
Ninety-two Asiatic lions have died in Gujarat’s Asiatic Lion Landscape (ALL) since January 2020, according to a Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) committee report.
ALL includes Gir National Park and Sanctuary and covers eight districts of Gujarat, including Junagadh, Amreli, Bhavnagar, Porbandar, Rajkot, Gir-Somnath, Botad and Jamnagar, according to the 14th Lion Population Estimation Report 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated a historic rise of 29 per cent in the Asiatic lion population — 151 between 2015 and 2020 — on June 10, 2020.
Two very good news:— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 10, 2020
Population of the majestic Asiatic Lion, living in Gujarat’s Gir Forest, is up by almost 29%.
Geographically, distribution area is up by 36%.
Kudos to the people of Gujarat and all those whose efforts have led to this excellent feat.https://t.co/vUKngxOCa7 pic.twitter.com/TEIT2424vF
“Some lions have died of in-fighting and many have died of the canine distemper virus (CDV). At the Jasadhar rescue centre, the two lions shown to the committee were suffering from CDV,” a source with the MoEF&CC who has the report, told Down To Earth (DTE). The rescue centre is a Gujarat forest department treatment facility for injured and sick lions.
The trend has been worsening: Thirty-six lions died in May, 24 in April, 10 in March, 12 in February and 10 in January. DTE has the data.
The deaths include 19 males, 25 females, 42 cubs and six unidentified lions. The maximum number of lions — 59 — have died in the Gir East Division, Dhari, the area where CDV outbreak happened in 2018.
The mortality figure for May was even higher than in September 2018, when the CDV outbreak happened in Gir, killing 26 lions in a month.
While there is no baseline data for lion mortality in ALL, the Gujarat government in March 2018 had said that 184 lions died in two years, Ravi Chellam, Asiatic lion expert and chief executive of Bengaluru-based non-profit Metastring Foundation, said.
This time, 92 have died in five months, while 60 have died in just April and May.
However, the Gujarat forest department has denied the presence of CDV.
“There is no CDV here in Gir. We sent a good number of samples to be tested for babesia and CDV in April, but are yet to get the results,” Chief Conservator of Forest, Junagarh Wildlife Circle, DT Vasavada said.
“Only 46 have died since January. In May, 13 died and in April, 15 died. Of these, some died of old age, some drowned, some suffered snake bites and some died of electrocution. Around 17-18 have died because of disease. We have sent 20 samples to our lab in Sakkarbaug zoo and the veterinary lab in Junagadh in April. The results are awaited,” he added.
“This issue of CDV is a media-versus-Gujarat government thing; it has no truth to it,” he claimed.
The MoEF&CC had formed the committee on May 29. It comprised the assistant inspector general of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, joint director of the ministry’s wildlife division, a representative from the Wildlife Institute of India and a veterinary doctor from Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly.
“The committee should visit the area immediately. They are required to inquire into the coincidence of death, cause of death, preventive and prophylactic measures adopted and other necessary details of the high mortality rate of Asiatic lions in Gir,” the MoEF&CC order constituting the committee said.
The committee visited the area between May 31 and June 1 and a draft was submitted to the MoEF&CC in the first week of June.
So, while the prime minister was praising the rise of lion numbers in Gujarat, the government was fully aware of the high rate of Asiatic lion mortality in Gir.
Over the last several years, the Lion population in Gujarat has been steadily rising. This is powered by community participation, emphasis on technology, wildlife healthcare, proper habitat management and steps to minimise human-lion conflict. Hope this positive trend continues!— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 10, 2020
On June 10, a two-page press release from the Press Information Bureau said the 15th Asiatic Lion Population Estimation was scheduled during June 5-6, 2020, but owing to the present COVID-19 situation, it was not conducted as planned.
“In order to develop an understanding of the current population status and distribution of Asiatic lions in the Asiatic Lion Landscape, the Gujarat forest department conducted an exercise familiarly called Poonam Avlokan on June 5-6, 2020, using the Direct Beat Verification also known as the Block Count method,” the press release said.
However, according to a forest department official in Gujarat, the publicising of the Asiatic lion figures is being done to divert the attention from the high rate of lion mortality in Gir.
“The committee report was with the government by the time this month’s Poonam Avlokan started. So, to divert attention from the increasing lion deaths, it was decided to hype up the number from the Poonam Avlokan, which is otherwise just a routine figure,” the official said.
Poonam Avlokan (Poonam: Full moon, Avlokan: Count) is done every month by the forest department in the GLL since 2014. The forest department officials, during their monthly patrolling of their beats, rounds and divisions, count the number of lions in their jurisdiction.
“For many years now, the Gujarat government has been giving excuses for not enabling the translocation of lions to the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. CDV has been established in the population and we are sitting on a ticking time-bomb,” Chellam said.
“Why is the Supreme Court order of 2013 not being implemented? Why are we endangering the world’s only population of wild Asiatic lions?” he asked.
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