With sad news of untimely deaths of 23 Gir lions (probably due to a pathogen) raging across media, I am hit by such a huge barrage of TV debates and social media posts on the subject that I am forced to offer a much-needed counter-point to the issue for those who are willing to rise above politics and understand the science behind the wildlife conservation.
Metaphorically speaking, while there seems to be a real pathogenic threat looming over Gir lions, I see another set of pathogens (that were a bit dormant lately) resurrecting that I find equally or more damaging.
As always, in the forefront, we have political parties fighting over lions with customary we-did-that and you-didn’t-do-that “arguments”. They have become so irrational over time that they make absolutely no sense, but the fact that they are engaging in heated debate is a symptom of an underlying malaise that needs serious attention, as I feel that it is caused by two specific groups of pathogens working in tandem, i.e. lion lovers of Gujarat and Kuno brigade, a combination virulent enough to destroy a fine animal.
I strongly feel that these pathogens need to be cognised for the damaging role they play.
At this point, lion lovers are busy smirking in panel discussions with we-have-always-told-you-that-Gujarta-forest-department-is-a-failure looks and Kuno brigade is excitedly writing why-MODI-is-not-giving-lions-to-Kuno posts on social media as they both have suddenly found the atmosphere conducive to spread, so I feel an urgent need to explain how these two pathogens work together in harming the lion.
Gir lion is a wonderful animal capable of evoking strong emotions in people, so it is difficult to keep emotions out of any discussion about this majestic cat; but the reality is, it is not some divine creature. Gir lion is just another big cat. Most of the glamour attached to it is because of its rarity, and now branding linked with Gujarat; but, as far as conservation efforts are concerned there is no real rocket science involved.
Gujarat Forest Department has been conserving lions since a long time, and has acquired enough expertise to continue doing it in normal circumstances. The typical threats faced by the lion is poaching and ecological deterioration of habitat, and both are mitigated fairly well by Gujarat forest department.
Gir lion is doing fine and increasing in numbers, so there is no real reason to worry about its protection inside the national park and sanctuary. It is only when it encounters extra-ordinary threats like a flood or epidemic, it will require enhanced management as it is being done today.
If lion is doing fine, what is there to worry about?
Here is where the first pathogen, Gir lion lover comes into play. The real problem with Gir lion is not conservation. It is hyper-conservation that Gujarat Forest Department is forced to indulge into due to presence of lion lovers that throng every street of Gujarat.
As the long-distance love affair of these lion-maniacs is obsessive, they have turned lion into a divinity, and like all religious devotees, their “sentiments are hurt” by every little thing. With lion lovers constantly breathing down their necks, the central objective of lion conservation is shifted from lion protection to emotional management of the lovers.
This has resulted into a very practical problem, i.e. lions moving out of the protected areas and colonising revenue land. As lovers feel that if need be all Gujarat must be vacated for making room for Gir lions, forest department has no option but to facilitate lion’s spread across human territory. Today, we have a number of large prides settled outside the protected areas and living alongside humans.
Though no sensible person would think that it is safe for lions and humans to share land, this phenomenon is celebrated by lovers and hence it has now acquired a sort of legitimacy that forest department is forced to accept.
If we look at the list of real threats that can wipe out a small wild animal population, pathogens, especially those that jump into a new species that has no immunity, must be rated as the top most threat.
Gir lion living on revenue land and hence coming in close contact of domesticated animals and humans is a sitting duck that just awaits a zoonotic pathogen bullet, but lovers, especially armed with science-agnosia that love causes, fail to recognise such a threat.
While lovers make the job of forest department difficult, if not just unscientific but also near-impossible, there is another group, the Kuno brigade that makes it worse.
Interestingly, Kuno brigade ride a horse of science. Their completely justifiable logic is that extreme and localise threat (such as a pathogen) can wipe out a small pollution confined in a small area and hence satellite populations must be created for increasing safety of the species. They sound reasonable and scientific, and very often are people who have worked in wildlife conservation for years.
If they make a good scientific sense, how can they be a threat to Gir lion?
The answer is in their strange instance on taking Gir lion OUT OF GUJARAT. They have only one demand and that is Out of Gujarat.
Here is where science stops and agenda surfaces. If they are only interested in protecting lions by creating satellite population, it is entirely possible to provide an alternate venue in Gujarat itself. There are a number of lion-conducive locations within Gujarat that reasonably distant from Gir where all the eggs won’t remain in one basket.
The bitter truth with Kuno brigade is that they have shifted from science and into politics. A lot of them have an issue with MODI and Gujarat Model (and they are vocal about it) and hence it is not lion conservation but Modi on their minds.
The real problem is the combination of lover and Kuno pathogen working in tandem. As Kuno pathogen pushes for lion translocation to Madhya Pradesh, the lover pathogen gets even more agitated. This, in turn, leads Kuno pathogen to intensify.
This cycle of these pathogens feeding each other is now a problem far bigger than the Canine Distemper Virus or any other natural parasite problem that lions face.
If Gir lion really needs anything, it is a bit less of the spotlight and far less of love.
They are cats that will thrive if protected, because cats breed, well like cats and dogs. If need be, Gujarat itself has places to have satellite populations, and Gujarat Forest Department is working on couple of such locations. It is also not at all challenging to run a captive breeding program for Gir lions as, unlike animals that refuse to breed in captivity, Gir lions thrive in captivity to a level that they overflow zoos.
So, if we can manage to keep lion lovers and Kuno brigade a bay, Gir lion is safe in the hands of Gujarat Forest Department that has done a wonderful job in conserving this majestic animal for the planet. Let them work in peace and Gir lion will be there for next generations to cherish.