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Shifting Home – New Horizons On The Anvil For The Asiatic Lion

Shifting Home – New Horizons On The Anvil For The Asiatic Lion

October 1998: More than two decades ago conservationists who knew how bleak the future of the Gir lions was, had recommended that a small population be translocated to Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. The idea was to avoid "keeping all the eggs in one basket."

 

In more recent times, with help from the Wildlife Institute of India, this idea was given concrete shape. Arpan Sharma examines the progress of this elaborate project that seeks to develop a new home for wild lions in the Palpur-Kuno Sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh... and also the sensitive issue of human relocation that is intrinsic to the success of the lion translocation project.

 

It was dark, but a full moon hidden behind moisture-laden clouds, revealed the outline of trees in the dry deciduous terrain of the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. Somewhere from the dark came the chattering sound of a spotted owlet and the soft call of a nightjar. From old records I knew that these forests once reverberated to the roar of that supreme predator – the lion. That was long ago. As if to remind me that times had changed, the gentle ringing of bells broke the silence of the night. The cows of Palpur village were on their way home from Kuno where the grazing was good. Kuno with its verdant surrounds was once a stronghold of the Asiatic lion. The majestic carnivore then commanded a range that stretched from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan to most of northern and central India. It now survives only in Gir's protected forests in Gujarat, in a 1,412sq. km. 'prison without bars'. Scientists now want to set Panthera leo persica free... in Palpur-Kuno, Madhya Pradesh, where the species might be afforded an extra edge on survival. This is why I was here. To take a first hand look at the promises and pitfalls of what must be one of the world's most ambitious conservation initiatives.

 

I heard Mr. Chaudhary's Gypsy drive up to the rest house just as the full moon reappeared from behind the cloud curtain. In the pale milky whiteness I saw him stride to the steps where I was seated: "If extraneous factors do not step into the picture, we should have no problem as the villagers are more than willing to move from Kuno to the Agraa village," he said, almost as soon as he took the weight off his weary bones. "The quality of their lives will truly be enhanced at Agraa. I don't see a problem here." As the Divisional Forest Officer in charge of the Kuno Sanctuary, Chaudhary had travelled to the Agraa area to oversee some details regarding the distribution of land to the residents of 18 villages currently situated inside the sanctuary. Essentially, there were two major relocations on hand... one for lions into Palpur-Kuno and the other of villagers away from Kuno (to keep a safe distance between humans and lions) to a site approximately five km. outside the northeastern periphery of the protected area. Money for both relocations was available from resources generated by the exceedingly complex Lion Reintroduction Project and it involved social, political and biological ramifications. The purpose of the entire effort, of course, was fairly straightforward – to move a pride of five to eight lions safely from the Gir National Park in Gujarat to Palpur-Kuno in Madhya Pradesh. Supported by the Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat State Governments and the Ministry of Environment and Forests at the Centre, the plan is probably the last hope for a species faced with almost sure extinction.

 

The Big Slide

 

It was an orgy of shikar unleashed on the lions at the turn of the 19th century by British 'sport' hunters and Indian royalty that virtually wiped out every last lion from Gir. This tragedy was compounded by the brutal fragmentation of habitats. Though lions were recorded from Rajasthan as late as 1870, by 1888 there were none left in the wild in India except for Gir. Here too, records suggest, barely a dozen individuals survived the pogrom. It was only the farsighted determination of the Nawab of Junagadh that ultimately saved the lions of Gir. Not only did he protect 'his' lions, but also lobbied with the Viceroy to force neighbouring states not to kill the great cats.

 

I visited the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehradun prior to my trip to Kuno. Dr. Ravi Chellam patiently answered the many questions that coursed through my mind. A member of the Wildlife Biology faculty at WII he had undertaken extensive research for his Ph.D. thesis on the ecology of the Asiatic lion. For a sociologist such as myself the very concept of 'displacing' Gir lions from a secure home in Gujarat to distant Kuno seemed intriguing to say the least. Quite apart from the fact that dacoits and zamindars in the Chambal region were armed to the teeth, surely Kuno's existing tiger population would prevent any new tenants from establishing roots.

 

The ensuing discussion with Dr. Chellam opened my eyes to what must be one of the most singular conservation biology projects conceived to date. I discovered that the small population of about 300 individuals that are now restricted to Gir are vulnerable to an array of threats. "The catastrophe that overtook Africa's Serengeti National Park, when the canine distemper virus infected three out of four lions and killed one in three, could strike Gir at any time," said Dr. Chellam. "And," he added, "if such an epidemic were to hit the lions of Gir, it would be next to impossible to prevent the species from going extinct because the Gir population is much smaller and therefore more vulnerable." Over the five years that he lived with and studied the Gir lions, Dr. Chellam developed an innate knowledge of their ecological imperatives and he believes that securing their future depends on our successfully preparing a new, alternative home for them. The data he collected in Gir will be the foundation for the management of the area chosen for a second free-ranging population of lions.

 

Three years after Dr. Chellam's field study was completed, in 1993, a 'Population and Habitat Viability Analysis' workshop on the Asiatic lion was held in Baroda. The Forest Departments of Gujarat, U.P., M.P., Rajasthan and Haryana were asked to draw up an exhaustive list of protected areas in their respective states that might potentially serve as a second home for the endangered lions. Simultaneously, a team of scientists from the WII was also constituted to hone in on a site. The search soon narrowed down to three potential areas: the Darrah-Jawaharsagar and Sitamata in Rajasthan and Kuno in Madhya Pradesh. These sites were then intensively studied between 1993-94 to determine the extent of forest area, quality of the habitat, prey availability and the dynamics of existing human populations. Darrah was almost immediately rejected on account of its small and degraded state and though the prey density in one small valley was quite high, the habitat was found unsuitable. Besides, too many people lived too close to the forest. Sitamata had excellent habitat, but very low prey density and was also ruled out. Said Dr. Chellam: "We did not restrict our survey to only the protected area, but the entire adjoining forest tract. Kuno was the obvious choice. What went in Kuno's favour was the fact that roughly 3,000 sq. km. of contiguous forest is still intact." Lion experts had recommended that a national park of between 800 and 1,000 sq. km. was needed in which human interaction with lions would be negligible. This core area they felt would be able to accommodate growing lion numbers. This inner forest would need to be surrounded by a buffer of about 1,500 sq. km. (bringing the total area under protection to around 2,500 sq. km.). The outer forests were primarily intended to distance humans from lions for the safety of both. But the fringes of the buffer would certainly help meet some of the legitimate sustenance needs of the local people. Kuno had virtually selected itself as the site for this unique programme. Almost immediately, work began in the sanctuary to prepare it to receive the lions by enhancing prey densities and by working to keep human populations away from the lions.

 

Home sweet home?

 

It is not easy to reach Kuno and this is probably one of the reasons that it was really a good choice. From the nearest rail head, Gwalior, I reached the sleepy town of Shivpuri to link up with Mr. Chaudhary after negotiating a bumpy 60 km. road that soon degenerated into little more than a dirt track. The roads had recently been made "motorable" after months of back-breaking effort by forest department staff. But if they were busy building roads, who on earth was guarding the forest I wondered! When I learned that the total complement of staff in the sanctuary was in the vicinity of 30 people, my fears worsened. All that these plucky people had at their disposal were two jeeps, a truck and a tractor. With this a 345 sq. km. forest was to be readied for one of the world's most ambitious relocation programmes by expanding the extent of the protected area and improving its ability to support sufficient prey species.

 

Such bleak thoughts vanished the moment the breathtaking vista of the sanctuary presented itself to me. The lush meadows of Manak-chowk spread out like a welcoming green carpet and a herd of chinkara could be seen grazing contentedly. That they ran for cover on our arrival suggests that they were wary of humans. This was obviously a place where shikar used to be the order of the day. Grasslands such as this and others like Lankakhoh, Pipalbaodi and Kairkho support a wide spectrum of herbivores including chital, sambar, nilgai as well as small populations of blackbuck. The prey base of lions is thus very well represented in Kuno. What had to now be achieved was a higher density of wild ungulates. Currently the resident cattle population of around 5,000 manages to overgraze the sanctuary. The 18 villages are populated by almost the same number of humans. The combined biotic disturbance is a serious stress factor on the forest. This is why relocating all 18 villages situated on the northeastern periphery of the sanctuary was considered essential to the reintroduction programme.

 

Far from the city, sitting in the forest rest house at the edge of Palpur village and gazing at the shimmering water of Kuno river, it was difficult to imagine that humans had the power to destabilise natural ecosystems as critical as Kuno with such ruthless efficiency. Observing the mix of vegetation was an object lesson in the hydrological systems of nature. The canopy of trees broke the fall of rain and prevented the soil from being loosened. Plants then held jealously on to every drop of water for as long as physically possible. Leaves prevented evaporation. Roots held the soil together and staunched subsurface moisture. The vegetation of Kuno actually fed the river through countless streams. Typical of the central Indian highlands, salai Boswellia serrata dominates the slopes and khair Accacia katechu dominates the plains. Kardhai Anogeissus pendula, dhawada Anogeissus lotifolia and roonjha Accacia leucophloea are also found here.

 

Interestingly, extensive parts of Kuno are characteristic of the riverine habitat known to be most favoured by the lions of Gir. The Kuno river itself virtually splits the sanctuary down the middle and even in summer when the river looks dry along parts of its course, underground water supplies continue to seep up in small pools. My first sight of such a stream, trickling from rocky terrain into the river left me awestruck. With the Kuno river supplying water all the year round, the lions had no fear of drought. Three crocodiles that I saw basking on the far bank of the river were a part of the army of creatures that conspired to keep both the forest and the river clean and productive. Everything moved according to the cycle of the sun in Kuno including myself. I rose with the sun and retired when it set. Mercifully Kuno has no electricity and is therefore spared light pollution. Lying out in the open staring at a star-studded sky, I could not help but feel small and insignificant. Rakesh, the wireless operator, and Baba, the gaunt old caretaker, of the rest house would never understand how such experiences could be novel for anyone, for they lived a near-natural existence as normally as they might breathe. As for me I could not help but believe that I must have done something divine to deserve the privilege of bathing in the same river in which crocodiles swam and chital quenched their thirst. I learned much about the forest and its denizens from locals, including Baba. That night, as I drifted to sleep a low moaning sound had me sitting bolt upright. Baba motioned me to go back to sleep: "That is only a tiger that has come to drink at the river. Do you think you are the only one who feels thirsty? After all, it is his river isn't it?"

 

There are six to eight tigers in Kuno according to the forest department and I cannot believe that there will be no conflict between them and the lions that are to be brought here. Nevertheless, there exists considerable historical evidence to suggest that when lions were abundant in India there was a partial overlap in the range of the two predators. Records of shikaris show that lions and tigers were killed as trophies on the same day, proving that they were indeed found in the same habitat, though they probably prefer different terrain. The experts believe, however, that the presence of tigers in Kuno is not a deterrent to lion translocation.

 

Quite apart from being a home that is destined to become the most famous cat predator sanctuary in the world, Kuno also happens to be an ornithologist's delight. Chaudhary informed me that he personally recorded over 200 species of birds. Not in his league, I too was able to identify 26 different species during my short stay. These included weaverbirds, shikras, crow-pheasants, pond-herons, golden orioles, great Indian horned owls, black francolin, and Indian griffon and long-necked vultures. Two sightings remain etched in my memory. One was of a juvenile male paradise flycatcher (the state bird of M.P.), a sight to behold, with its orange-brown plumage and black crest. I did not see the white-as-snow adult. The second vision was that of a pied kingfisher's commando-like hunting strategy. The small black and white bird hovered in mid-air some 10-12 metres above water before it dived almost vertically into the water at great velocity. Completely submerged for a few seconds the tiny hunter emerged victorious with a small fish in its bill, which it promptly battered senseless on a nearby rock before swallowing it. But the hunter had to make several unsuccessful attempts before getting a fish. Life was obviously hard in the kingfisher world!

 

Keeping Kuno ready

 

Clearly for the lion reintroduction plan to have any chance of success, the people who currently live in the proposed lion-relocation habitat will have to agree to move. As a sociologist, I know just what the traumas of moving home can be, particularly in India. When I first heard of the idea of relocating families from secure homes, my initial reaction, was to fight the plan. But after visiting the area and discovering for myself that there appears to be a genuine desire on the part of the inhabitants of the villages to move, provided the shift actually improves their circumstances, I began to accept that the human relocation did have some chance to work. But I still hope and pray that some sensitive person is given charge of the programme because insensitive bureaucrats are capable of ruining lives without a care in the world.

 

The plan is to relocate those villages that lie in the western half of the sanctuary by the end of December 1998. The remaining 11 villages in the eastern flank are to move later. Ladar and Palpur are among the first villages scheduled to move and it was here that I focussed my attention. When I met with the villagers I was quite surprised to discover that my fears that the forest department was misrepresenting their willingness to move were misplaced. Almost to the last man and woman, they said to me that they would be more than willing to move... provided they actually got the facilities they had been promised. It seems they face a host of problems today, their sheer remoteness being prime among them. The lack of motorised transport to and from the outside world was another major issue, as travelling 15 to 20 km. on foot or bicycle over rough terrain is not easy. The lack of medical facilities also emerged as a key reason for their wanting to shift.

 

Like other urban thinkers I had been brought up on a diet dished out by anthropocentric laptop-wielding environmentalists who suggested that people living near forests were all "nature-worshippers". There must be some truth in this belief, judging from the many communities that still practice animism and whose traditions continue to venerate forest gods. But this was clearly not the case in Kuno. For instance, I saw no local health traditions of any particular significance, though some of the elders did indeed prepare herbal concoctions, which by their own admission were not always effective. As a result, the mortality rate in the sanctuary villages is high. Little wonder then that people are keen to move.

 

In my discussions with Ram Charan and others from Palpur village I was able to establish that most villagers looked on the forest as a source of supply for fuel and fodder and the occasional bonus from tendu leaves. As far as I could see, poaching was not a supplement to their income in any way. If the alternative lands to which they moved enabled them to obtain similar or better rewards through alternate means, they would have no trouble whatsoever with the shift. Like city dwellers, in other words, they were domiciled more by necessity than emotion to the area that supported them. I found nothing negative about this. In fact, the draw of attractions such as electricity, schools, medical facilities and security available at the resettlement sites at Agraa were all too obvious. Nevertheless, I could sense a touch of uncertainty in the minds of the village elders. Would the government actually give them all they promised? Would other nearby communities not feel that they had been intruded upon?

 

Actually, the predominant source of income for the people of Kuno is agriculture, with two crops being the norm in a good monsoon year. Many locals also find employment as daily wage earners through the forest department. If the Agraa site is prepared such that these simple requirements are met, this key factor of the lion re-intro – human relocation – project would succeed. In fact, on several occasions when crops fail, people are forced to migrate to neighbouring towns such as Sheopur where they work as labourers. The issue of livestock will also have to be dealt with at the relocation site. The milk, ghee and dairy produce that they are able to get in the post-monsoon months supplements their diet and this must be recognised as a legitimate need of theirs from the new site.

 

"At least at Agraa we will be free from the demands of dacoits." Pritam from Ladar village seemed almost eager for the process of shifting to begin. The proximity to the infamous Chambal region and its ruthless dacoits obviously takes a toll on the villagers each year. I was constantly advised by them to return to the rest house every evening and not to stay in their villages because my presence might well draw the unwanted attention of the dacoits! Needless to add, I readily agreed for I had no particular desire to experience the ways of the Chambal dacoits first hand.

 

I visited Agraa to see for myself where the proposed relocation was to be undertaken. The village has electricity, and is also linked with a fair weather road along which a regular bus service plies twice a day. The Kunwari river waters the region and the benefits that would accrue to the villages as a consequence, and this was an important factor in convincing them to move. I also inspected the village rehabilitation plan. Potential rehabilitation problems that had cropped up elsewhere seem to have been seriously dealt with. Cultivable land is to be made available to all adult males in Agraa, irrespective of whether or not they hold land titles in Kuno. Village development societies are to be formed to interface between the villagers and the forest department. The blue print for genuine participation for the people has indeed been built into the initiative.

 

Chaudhary was able to establish a rapport with the people who he knew were critical to the success of the lion translocation project. With the cooperation of village leaders, families have already been identified for first phase relocation, and a similar process has been initiated for the second phase. Land distribution for the villagers of Ladar and Palpur has already been undertaken. So far so good.

 

While I saw no major resentment or unhappiness, I know that this is inevitable when so many people are asked to move home. I believe the overall plan currently lacks a formal dispute-resolving mechanism. I doubt very much that the forest department has the built-in capability to handle such sensitive issues. Sociologists and anthropologists must be a part of the process.

 

There must also be a very concerted effort to conduct regular sessions between villagers and forest staff where the basic objectives of the lion translocation programme and potential man-animal conflicts can be discussed threadbare. Trained manpower will be needed for such initiatives that must take the perception of the local people to the proposed lion reintroduction into account. Many are actually unaware that lions are going to be released into the area! This I consider a major flaw in the process thus far. As recommended by Dr. Chellam, a proper awareness campaign must be undertaken through which: 'The lions' past distribution, highly endangered status and the fact that it is a large and potentially dangerous carnivore should be highlighted for the benefit of locals. Since, the lion would be a new animal to these people and they are likely to encounter it, they also need to be advised on how to behave when they see a lion in the forest. They must be made aware that livestock depredation is possible. People must be taught to live with the lions."

 

Home fit for a king

 

Of course there is also the matter of that other relocation... the one involving the lions themselves. The actual shift will not be sudden by any measure. The whole programme in fact has been designed in three phases spanning a period of 20 years (1995-2015). In the pre-translocation phase (1995-2000) the habitat will be protected and its ability to support herbivores will be carefully monitored and enhanced. This will be followed by the actual translocation and population build-up phase (2000-2005), and the follow up and consolidation phase (2006-2015). Continued habitat improvement to support a larger and wider prey base for the introduced lions and the restocking of wild herbivores (300 chital and 50 wild boar from Bhopal's Van Vihar) will also be undertaken. A 20 hectare herbivore enclosure in Kuno has been readied. But will this serve the purpose? And how are the animals to be transported from such a long distance? There are worrisome infirmities in the planning process that people really concerned about the success of the project should correct at this stage itself.

 

Only after ensuring that there is sufficient prey density will the introduction of lions captured from Gir take place. Naturally, a very detailed monitoring effort will be undertaken that would include radio-collaring to keep track of any animals that might move out of the sanctuary precints and to watch over how they adjust to their new circumstances. The lions would need to undergo pre-release captivity in large 100m.x100m. enclosures for periods ranging from three to five weeks so that they are comfortable with their new geography. There is another view that suggests they should be set free within a week after reaching Kuno. Initially, it might be necessary to provide supplemental feeding in the form of baits, but this would be kept to a minimum and gradually withdrawn within three to six months after their release. Data on their movements, habitat use, diet (scat analysis), predation ecology (examining kills made by them), social organisation and reproductive performance will be collected in order to assess the success of the programme.

 

Ensuring the survival of the lions and the safety of surrounding villages will require much greater skills than have ever been asked of the forest department to date. To begin with the forest staff at Kuno would need to be trained in chemical restraint of animals, tracking radio-collared animals, monitoring the behaviour of lions and detecting behavioural aberrations. Then talented botanists will need to be put to work to ensure habitat regeneration. Sociologists would be needed to ensure that the humans relocated do not face untoward difficulties, or else their animosity towards the lions is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps, above all else, very specially trained researchers will need to track and monitor the lions, as much for their safety as for the human communities next to which they will be released.

 

It was precisely because of this lack of expertise and pre-planning that an earlier attempt at lion translocation failed in Chandraprabha Sanctuary in U.P. during 1958-65. According to Dr. Chellam, in fact, the most technical part of the reintroduction effort will be the identification of a suitable pride of lions for translocation from Gir. A number of factors will go into the selection of this pride, which will be isolated after a thorough study of two to three years. For this purpose, prides of lions will need to be tracked, monitored and chosen from the core area of the Gir National Park. This will call for unprecedented cooperation between the Gujarat Forest Department and the researchers of the WII.

 

In conclusion, to overcome the infirmities inherent in most government initiatives, the Lion Reintroduction Programme will need to form a truly empowered Core Committee to guide the destiny of the initiative. This should comprise officials from the Central Ministry of Environment & Forests, the M.P. and Gujarat Forest Departments., scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India, anthropologists and sociologists. Needless to add, the long-term interest of the people who have moved to Agraa village will need to be kept at the top of everyone's agenda. The project is unlikely to succeed unless a strong education component to explain the rationale of introducing the lions to the people living around the Kuno-Palpur forests. And someone in a leadership role will need to ensure that neither sociology or biology dominate the other.

 

I have to say that I was deeply sceptical about the ability of all the agencies involved in undertaking what I thought was a well-intentioned, but improbable mission. But I have to accept that the first few steps, however, have been taken in the right direction. In particular I found the lack of bravado in the attitude of both forest officers and researchers refreshing. Both are proceeding in a circumspect and cautious manner. Contrary to what most field biologists might imagine, however, the key to the success of the lion relocation will be the more-difficult-to-execute human relocation project. It is probably the degree to which sociologists and social activists will be listened to by the politicians that will determine the outcome of this effort to save the Asiatic lion. We still have a long way to go before finding out whether or not the roar of the lions will reverberate through the forests of Kuno.

 

Arpan Sharma is a Mumbai-based sociologist with an interest in wildlife and animal welfare issues.

 

Published in Sanctuary Asia, XVIII No. 5, October 1998

 
 
 

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