Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi Saturday, suggesting measures to tackle large-scale deaths of Asiatic lions in Gujarat’s Gir forest and calling it an example of “ecological neglect” by the state government.

In his letter, the Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat said the death of Gir lions is a “manifestation of negligence” and “result of the state government’s prolonged mismanagement and poor oversight.”

The toll in the Gir National Park and sanctuary in the last three weeks has touched 23, more than four per cent of the big cats’ population of 523 at the last census in 2015.

Despite initial denials, State Forest Department officials have now admitted that most of the deaths are due to a viral infection. This cause of death for the big cats is what Gujarat’s political leadership fear the most as it strengthens the justification for relocating some of the Asiatic lions away from Gir.

For the last few years since the Supreme Court has ordered the relocation of a few lions to Kuno Palpur reserve forest in Madhya Pradesh, the Gujarat Government had been steadfastly opposing the move under some pretext or the other but always insisting that the big cats are safe in Gir.

Acknowledging that Gujarat’s forest department’s conservation efforts have yielded results by way of increasing lions’ population from 200 to nearly 600 now, Naik said that the old strategy should have changed with the growing numbers.

Among the measures Congress leader suggested to save lions were to expand eco-sensitive zones to 10 kilometres from protected areas of Gir National Park the abode of Asiatic lions, removal of illegal resorts, and better healthcare facilities for the big cats.

Patel also suggested creation of a Rs 1,000-crore fund for protection of Gujarat’s lions on lines of Project Tiger, a centrally-sponsored umbrella scheme covering 18 tiger range states.

Patel said eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) in Gujarat, extending only up to 0.5 km from protected areas, as against 10 km suggested by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), had “caused unwarranted interference in the ecosystem of lions”.

He called for a revision of the ESZ for Gir National Park and expressed the need to strike a “fine balance” between promoting tourism and conserving wildlife.

The Congress leader stressed on the need for removal of “illegal resorts” near the sanctuary, “irrespective of their ownership.”

Drawing attention to the shortage of medicines and trained veterinary doctors for lions, Patel suggested the government to consider “introducing training programmes for lion conservation and allocating adequate budget for research towards their conservation.”

“Treat Gujarat lions with the same importance given to tigers. The central government can consider creating a Rs 1,000-crore fund for conservation of Gir lions and launch national-level programmes on the lines of Project Tiger,” he said.

“Being a fellow Gujarati, you (Modi) are equally aware that Gir’s lions are an integral part of Gujarati asmita (pride). Gir Forest, which was once projected as a success story of animal conservation, is now being seen as a glaring example of ecological neglect by the state,” he said.

(With agency inputs)