Are radio collars responsible for the deaths of lions in Gujarat?
Radio-collaring, a popular tool to track animals in the wild, made headlines when an MP claimed last week that ‘unscientific’ tagging was killing lions in the Gir National Park. Wildlife experts, however, are sceptical
During zero hour in the Rajya Sabha on 17 September, Congress MP Shaktisinh Gohil claimed radio collars were killing Asiatic lions in the Gir National Park in Gujarat. “The lions in Gir have been radio-collared unscientifically," he said. “Due to this, the death rates of the lions have increased." Nearly 25% of such lions collared had died, he added, without giving the numbers.
On 25 August, The Times Of India reported that 19 of the 89 lions tagged in Gir, the only sanctuary for lions in the country, had died. The report also quoted Dushyant Vasavada, chief conservator of forests, Junagadh wildlife circle, as saying the radio collars had no role to play in the deaths.
In Parliament, however, Gohil cited two wildlife experts—H.S. Singh from the National Board for Wildlife and retired forest official A.K. Sharma, both of whom were quoted in The Times Of India report. Singh reportedly said the collars led to behavioural changes in the animals while Sharma said they put pressure on the lions’ necks and impeded their hunting abilities.
“Protocol says not more than 6% lions, or any animal, should be radio collared," Golil said in Parliament. “This (tagging at Gir) is unscientific. Those responsible should be acted against."
Wildlife experts with decades of experience in using radio collars on animals dismiss the possibility that these could have an adverse impact—though they do acknowledge the slim chance that it could have been done incorrectly. In fact, one added, the collars were necessary to keep a tab on lions at a time when the canine distemper virus (CDV) has been rampant in the region.
An estimate by the Gujarat wildlife department from June suggests Gir has 674 lions. Although their numbers have increased—there were an estimated 523 in 2015—CDV has emerged as a major threat in recent years. In 2017, the Gujarat government announced a ₹350 crore package to strengthen lion conservation efforts.
The radio-collaring project, launched in 2018, is aimed at helping study movement patterns, territories and habitat preferences while preventing man-animal conflict and tracking animal mortality. Under the project, 75 young lions were to be captured, tranquillized, and a clamp with a battery-powered chip put around their necks. Using the satellite signals from the chip, the Gujarat forest department could track the lions from its control room.
“It is possible that during this process, those putting the clamps around the animals didn’t have the necessary experience for it," says Y.V. Jhala, senior scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India, who has used radio-tagging for 25 years. “It is also possible that the collars used weren’t expandable, as is usually used."
But, he adds, “CDV is rampant in the region. The animals’ death is probably because of the disease, not because of radio-collaring."
Radio-collaring technology was first used in the US in the 1960s. It has since been used on a variety of species, from tigers and hummingbirds to elephants and whales. “It has opened a whole new world to understanding animals," says K. Ullas Karanth, a conservation zoologist from Karnataka. “We know about the resource relationship, how they manage their family. It has helped accumulate individual behaviours, aggregate them and for them to become statistics at the population level."
Karanth was the first to adopt the technology to track tigers in India, in the 1990s. The collars, he says, have no adverse impact on animals. “You just have to know the technique and do it right." When he first started radio-collaring animals, he says, he too faced a lot of resistance. Today, it’s an accepted practice.
FIRST PUBLISHED23.09.2020 | 11:00 AM IST