Wildlife & Biodiversity

Biporjoy: As cyclone nears Kutch & Saurashtra, concern grows over Gir lions, Naliya bustards

Some 700 lions are spread across the Gir landscape, whereas Naliya is home to 4 Great Indian Bustards

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 13 June 2023
Photo: iStock

Cyclone Biporjoy is expected to make landfall near the port of Jakhau in Kutch along the Pakistan border at noon, June 15, 2023. As the cyclone nears, conservationists are worried about the Great Indian Bustards (GIB) of Naliya near Jakhau as well as the famous Asiatic lions of the Gir forest.

Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the director-general of the India Meteorological Department, also expressed concern on June 13. “An eye should be kept on the Gir forest,” he said.

There are nearly 700 lions in the Asiatic Lion Landscape (ALL) spread across the Gir-Somnath, Amreli, Junagadh and Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region. The area is the last bastion of the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo leo) in the world.

Repeated attempts to transfer the lions to the Kuno National Park (KNP) have been thwarted in the past three decades by the Gujarat government. Instead, KNP is now home to African cheetahs brought from Namibia and South Africa last year in September and this year in February.

The Gujarat government is trying to declare areas within the ALL, such as the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary, as new homes for the animals.

Conservationists have always warned of the dangers of having all the lions in one place. Any epidemic or natural disaster can wipe off the entire population.

The spectre of such a wipe-out hung over the lions during 2018 when an epidemic of babesiosis swept Gir. It repeated next year when Cyclone Tauktae hit Saurashtra.

“What is the value of the Supreme Court of India’s 2013 order if it is violated with impunity? There is nothing to be added here,” Ravi Chellam, chief executive of Bengaluru-based Metastring Foundation and coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative, told Down To Earth (DTE).

The Supreme Court had directed in 2013 that Asiatic lions be shifted from Gujarat’s Gir forest to Madhya Pradesh’s KNP. It had rejected the Gujarat government’s plea against the translocation of lions as Gujarat held that these animals were the pride of the state.

Similarly, there is concern for the four Great Indian Bustards in the grasslands of Naliya. All are females and the last of the GIB population in Gujarat.

But the experts DTE spoke to, said lions, being woodland species, were at greater risk than GIBs which were birds and a grassland species.

“The birds, if they get a sense of the impending cyclone, might take off and move elsewhere. They can fly long distances. The difference between a grassland and forest system and a bird and a mammal is a grassland tends to get flooded if there is rain. But otherwise, there is not so much habitat destruction. In a forest, there are trees. They will fall down and there will be structural damage apart from flooding. Birds are much more mobile than mammals,” Chellam said.

There is also scientific evidence that wild animals sense danger and tend to move away if they can. “So the birds will be able to fly away if they sense danger. While that will not be possible for mammals,” he added.

“Since GIB is a grasslands species, I don’t think there should be much damage,” Sumit Dookia, assistant professor, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, told DTE.

He added that this is the first time that a cyclone will be passing through GIB habitat. “A cyclone usually loses steam once it hits the land. But since Jakhau is so close to Naliya, it will be a great learning experience as to how to prepare for disasters of such magnitude when they pass through habitat of critically endangered wildlife,” Dookia said.

Chellam said habitat contiguity had to be ensured so that animals can move. “Till wildlife does not have space and connectivity, they are, in a sense, marooned. Having said that, India is an exception compared to most countries of the world in that there is a certain acceptance and co-existence with wildlife outside our protected areas (PA). In other countries, including advanced ones, there is no acceptance of wild animals outside PAs, especially if they are large and dangerous.”

DTE also spoke to Nityanand Srivastav, chief wildlife warden of Gujarat.

“We cannot stop the cyclone. But we have cancelled the leaves of staff. Our full manpower is in the field. We have formed rescue teams for any animal that may need help. We also have teams ready and equipped with tree-cutting machines so that our movement is not restricted,” he told DTE.

He noted that the authorities also had hospitals well-stocked with medicines so that any injured animal can be treated.

“But the exact scale of the damage will be known only after the cyclone makes landfall. We cannot shift any wild animal though we have done so in zoos in the areas that are to bear the brunt. But wherever possible, we will try and intervene and deal with the situation as it demands.”

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