The lions sleep tonight. Four days after two cubs died at the Etawah Lion Safari, taking the toll to six in nine months, it has gone into lockdown mode.
Chief Wildlife Warden Rupaq De, Director, Lion Safari, K K Singh and other senior officials have locked themselves inside, trying to figure out the problem, all entry has been banned, and among those closely watching the CCTV footage for clues is the Chief Minister’s office.
The immediate priority is a four-day-old cub that is fighting for survival.
“Nobody is to be allowed inside. Upar sey order hai,” says a forest guard at the main gate.
District Magistrate Nitin Bansal said senior forest officials are not talking to the media.
The safari is a pet project of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. Son and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is a regular visitor, though the 350-hectare enclosure (with the safari area 50 hectares), located around 240 km from Lucknow, hasn’t yet been thrown open to public. He last visited on June 26. Currently abroad, Akhilesh is said to be in touch with the officials concerned.
Experts working on saving the cub include two from Gujarat — Dr R S Kadiwal and keeper Saleem. They have been brought in after all the other cubs born here so far have died.
The cub struggling for life was born to Girishma. It has been separated from its mother, and is being fed goat milk. Delighting the officials, it has opened its eyes. All depends on how the coming week goes.
Admitting that no one is being allowed in the safari right now, Principal Secretary, Forests, Sanjeev Saran said, “We have got a specialist doctor from Gujarat who is looking after the cub. We are trying hard and we are trying our best.”
Four pairs of Asiatic lions had been brought to the safari between April and September 2014. The first to die were the pair brought from Hyderabad — Lakshmi on October 30, 2014, followed by Vishnu on November 16. Then, on July 18 this year, two cubs of lioness Heer died, followed by Girishma’s two four days later.
The three lion pairs remaining — Manan and Kunwari, Heer and Gigo, Girishma and Kuber — are all from Gujarat.
With Heer and Girishma not likely to deliver any time again soon, and Kunwari reportedly hospitalised, the survival of the ailing cub is crucial for the safari. Should it recover, it can be released into the safari only two years later.
That could also hit Mulayam’s plans for a grand opening of the safari, located in his native district, before the 2017 Assembly polls.
Currently, there is a single full-time vet A K Tripathi at the safari, which also plans to host leopards, antelopes, bears etc.
A corpus of Rs 100 crore has been sanctioned, and Akhilesh himself heads one of the three committees set up for the safari’s smooth functioning. As many as 88 posts have been sanctioned, including of four senior forest officers. Search is on for an environmentalist, a biologist and a naturalist.
Sources blamed the “lax attitude” shown towards the lions at the time of delivery for the cubs dying. A safari employee said even the CCTV footage was checked only after three-four hours and no senior forest official was around when the lionesses had the cubs.
Earlier, Lakshmi’s death had been blamed on “multi-organ dysfunction followed by cardiac respiratory failure”. However, sources said both Lakshmi and Vishnu had received injuries during their transportation from Kanpur Zoo, and couldn’t recover due to the lack of a tiger specialist.
Among those who paid a visit to the ailing Lakshmi was Akhilesh. Experts from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly; Veterinary College, Mathura; Sakkarbaug Zoo, Junagadh, Gujarat; Bear Rescue Facility, Agra; and veterinarians from the Zoo Authority of Karnataka were also consulted.
Later, the state government turned to the Zoological Society of London, and Born Free Foundation of the UK. However, Lakshmi and Vishnu could not be saved, and had died within 16 days of each other.
More worryingly for Akhilesh and Mulayam, questions are being raised now over the viability of the project itself, and whether lions can survive in Etawah’s topography. Old gazetteer records show animals like neelgai, panther, fox, sambhar, bear, wolf, hyena, hare etc in Etawah but no mention of Asiatic lions.
However, wildlife experts play down these fears. “There is not much climatic difference between Gujarat and Etawah. Lions can survive in Etawah. The two adults died due to infection last year. We have conducted the postmortem of the four dead cubs and sent their viscera for examination. The report is awaited,” Dr A K Sharma, Incharge, Wildlife Conservation, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly, said.
Incidentally, Narendra Modi had used the Gujarat lions sent to Etawah to target the SP during the general elections last year. “Your chief minister was asking us for lions, we gave them lions. We had hoped they may draw some strength from seeing the lions. But they could not handle the Gujarat lions. The lions had to be caged,” Modi had said, while inviting Akhilesh and Mulayam to visit “Gir forests (in Gujarat) and see how the lions roam freely” there.
That bite may have just got teeth.
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