Forest Dept presses lion headcount button

The Indian Express , Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Correspondent : Sreenivas Janyala
Ahmedabad, April 10: The State Forest Department has launched a massive exercise to conduct an unofficial census of lions in the Gir National Park and Sanctuary and reserve forests on the periphery. But, contrary to what most of us would think — that two recent poaching incidents may have triggered the census — the truth is there is more to it that has forced the forest department to undertake another headcount in less than two years after the official census in 2005.

“We are anxious because at a couple a places where lion prides were expected to be seen (as it was their territory), were not found there. It is possible they moved out for some reason. But it is a cause for anxiety until they are found. We are scanning the entire Gir forest area minutely to find out if the prides are intact or not,” Principal Secretary Forest and Environment P N Roychowdhury said on Tuesday.

One instance is of the Babaria Forest Range itself where 6 lions were poached on March 1 and March 31. The Range is home to 29 lions. After six of them were killed by poachers, 23 should have remained but a localised census by the forest department revealed only 18 lions — setting off alarm bells regarding the fate of the 5 missing lions. Forest officials are not willing to confirm if they have been found yet, but with the Sariska Tiger Reserve happenings still fresh in everybody’s mind — where, by the time forest officials realised tigers were being poached, the entire population had been wiped out, the State Forest Department is taking no chances and has quietly expanded the check list to the entire Gir area.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi, after a quick look at the modus operandi and unimpressive investigation reports during an unscheduled visit to Gir last week, is also learnt to have asked for an urgent head count of the lions.

While the forest department officials are sure that nothing untoward happened in the core Sanctuary area, they do not want to commit themselves about the fringe areas. “A bout 40 per cent of Gir lions reside on the fringes of the Sanctuary and often venture into unprotected zones, which has always been a cause of concern because here they have often drowned in blind wells or died because of various other reasons. But we were not prepared for the threat of professional and meticulous poaching. The evidence indicating to the involvement of Katnis, who were responsible for poaching in Sariska, is frightening. We have to meet this threat squarely and for that we have to know where we stand now?” Roychowdhury said after returning from a high-level meeting in New Delhi.

It is a tremendous task: Gir National Park and Sanctuary is spread over 1,412 sq km and the fringe forest area covers another 2,500 sq km, which includes several corridors, that some prides have made their home or which the lions use to migrate and return to the sanctuary. And, unlike the official census where manpower from various departments is made available, this time it has to be done only by the forest department.

On the other hand, the suspected involvement of Katnis — poachers from Madhya Pradesh — who were involved in Sariska poaching, has rattled the forest department. The exercise is two-pronged: officials are on the one hand monitoring and taking note of lions while on the other hand also investigating all the kills found on the way.

SOURCE : The Indian Express, Wednesday, April 11, 2007

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