Placing predators in land of 1.1 billion people
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2007:
Indian tigers, lions, and leopards who menace humans or
livestock are killed, as predators are in other nations–but Indian
animal advocates have long sought alternatives.
The tiger conservationist Jim Corbett, born in India of
British parents, first won fame by shooting the tigers he
memorialized in his 1946 memoir The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Yet far
from boasting of his kills, Corbett pleaded for tiger habitat to be
set aside, within which tigers could be tigers, safe from the
threat of human encroachment.
Though tiger reserves were eventually created, as Corbett
recommended, and one of the largest was named in his honor,
poaching and encroachment have diminished most of them. The Sariska
tiger reserve, formerly among the most accessible to tourists, was
apparently poached completely out of tigers in 2003, as was
officially confirmed in November 2004. Poachers admitted killing 10
of the 20-odd tigers who were believed to have inhabited Sariska.
The rest appeared to have existed only on paper as result of counts
inflated to keep tourists coming.
Tiger attacks have declined with the tiger population, from
about two dozen a year when India was believed to have several
thousand wild tigers, to fewer than half a dozen per year recently.
Current data indicates that India may now have less than 1,500 wild
tigers. The most recent official tiger counts, putting the numbers
over 2,000, have been widely discredited. A new official count is
due to be completed later in 2007.
Asiatic lion attacks have long been rare partly because of
the extreme rarity of Asiatic lions. But this may be changing.
The last remaining Asiatic lion habitat, the Gir Forest in
Gujarat state, was protected in 1907 by order of the Nawab of
Junagadh. The Gir Forest lion population soared from just 13 when
the Nawab acted, to 219 in 1950 to 285 by 1963, fell to 177 by
1968, and climbed back to 359 in 2005.
During the past 50 years, however, human encroachment
shrank the protected area from more than 4,000 square kilometers to
barely 1,400. As many as 90 lions now live outside the protected
area, leading to incidents like the reported invasion of Virpur
village by a pride of seven lions on January 5, 2005.
“The lions killed 35 goats, four wild pigs, and an ox,”
Virpur resident Kanubhai Kothiya told the Times of India. “One or
two lions stray into the village every week, but this was an army.”
Even within the protected zone, encroachment is an
increasing threat, Gujarat SPCA representative Snehal Bhatt recently
detailed to fellow members of the Asian Animal Protection Network.
Hugely outnumbered, and often related to the offenders, the local
forest guards and other authorities mostly look away, Bhatt charged.
Boasts by Gir officials that poaching has been suppressed
have been followed at least twice in two years by discoveries of
poached carcasses, stripped of marketable body parts. Most
recently, two lionesses and a cub were poached circa March 1, 2007.
Thirty-seven recent instances are known of Asiatic lions
falling into deep open-pit wells, of whom only 18 were pulled out
alive, Gujarat forest minister Mangubhai Patel told news media on
March 6. Suspicion that many of these incidents are caused by people
seeking to kill lions rose after tire tracks showed that someone
apparently chased two cubs into a well, where they were found dead
on February 24.
“There have been calls for some lions to be moved to a second
reserve, to give them more space,” Independent Delhi correspondent
Justin Haggler reported on March 9. “A site has been found, at the
Kuno wildlife sanctuary in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh.
The idea is backed by the central government in Delhi, and by the
Wildlife Institute of India. But the Gujarat state government has
opposed the move, saying the lions are a symbol of pride for Gujarat.
“Leading opposition to the relocation is Gujarat chief
minister Narendra Modi, who cannot travel to Britain,” Haggler
noted, “because of calls for him to be prosecuted under
international law for the Gujarat massacres [of Muslims, by Hindu
nationalists who accused Muslims of starting a deadly train fire] in
Leopards have no protected habitat designated especially for
them. Officially, about 14,000 leopards survive in India, some in
forest reserves, many in farming areas where they are blamed for
killing cattle, sheep, goats, and at least 33 humans during the
past three years.
The human victims are typically women and children who are
pounced while collecting windfallen wood or fruits under trees where
leopards lurk in ambush for deer, their primary prey.
Leopards found close to human habitation are often
live-trapped to be relocated, but lack of places to put them leads
to headlines like, “Leopard saved, now what?”, in the February
12, 2007 edition of the Telegraph of India.
“A few days ago,” explained Teleg-raph reporter Roopak
Goswami, “when a leopard who strayed into a busy area of
Bhaskarnagar was tranquillized and captured, many felt it was a job
well done. But for the Forest Department, it was an addition to a
problem–the lack of a proper place to rehabilitate big cats who
wander out of their habitat.”
A leopard, for example, can only be released into an area
“within range of the spot it is rescued from, with an adequate prey
base, sufficient water, and most importantly, away from human
settlements,” Assam State Zoo divisional forest officer Narayan
Mahanta told Goswami.
Wrote Goswami, “Most often, these big cats are rescued from
hillock areas of the city,” where isolated islands of habitat are
surrounded by dense suburbs.
“It is very difficult to release them in these places, as
the residents will protest,” Mahantas said.
The Assam State Zoo added the leopard to a caged leopard
collection already numbering a dozen.
Housing more than 700 animals of 45 species, in just 47
enclosures on a 430-acre site, the Assam State Zoo recently
announced a 20-year improvement plan focused on conservation breeding