Why the tiger not the lion should be India's national animal

A national animal by its very definition must have a wide range in our country, it must be rooted in our culture — part of our lore.

 |  4-minute read |   17-04-2015
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It was proposed to make the Asiatic lion the national animal in the March 14 meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, usurping the tiger. The decision is in abeyance and awaits "wider consultations". I am not surprised. After all, Gujarat and its denizens have been trending since the past year or so, and taking on the national, and indeed the international stage (I hope it is catching, I studied in Gujarat too).

And why not, you may ask. Isn't the lion — another of our magnificent big cats — as much a symbol of sovereignty, and why this prejudice in favour of the tiger?

First, let me state upfront, as someone who works to conserve wildlife, no beast is greater or lesser than the other.

But the lion, majestic as he is — lacks national character, given his very limited range. For nearly two centuries, it has been confined to a small part of Saurashtra in Gujarat — the Gir National Park, and increasingly its surrounds. Once upon a time, its range extended over northern India (Emperor Akbar hunted lions near Mathura), in the east it extended up to Bihar, with the Narmada river marking the southern limit, till it was exterminated by hunting. The last wild Asiatic lion was reported outside Saurashtra in the 1890s.

A national animal by its very definition must have a wide range in our country, it must be familiar to its citizens, representative of its varied ecosystems, rooted in our culture — part of our lore.

The tiger is all of it, and more. Saving the tiger has earned India the position of a pioneering leader in conservation. The tiger today is a beloved symbol of the country, has spanned a business around its tourism, and serves as India's brand ambassador. Even when some US Presidents come visiting, like Bill Clinton, meeting the tiger is on their agenda.

This proposal is strange, given that Gujarat has fiercely held on to its pride — refusing to part with even few of its lions to send them to an alternate home — even though science argues that confining the lion to a small, single area places the population at greater risk for genetic inbreeding and the fear of an epidemic.

If the lion becomes the national animal, one wonders if it will be allowed to cross borders.

One must add here that the Gujarat government has done extremely well by its lions, but given the fact that the tiger is a resident of varied states, and a wanderer across borders, its conservation — while the prime responsibility of states — must have national stewardship, particularly amid of the increasing threats it faces.

I hasten to add that this is true not just for the tiger, but for all wildlife.

In fact, the lion was India's national animal between 1952-72, when the Indian Board of Wildlife took a decision to anoint the tiger as it was found in largest swathes of the country — there are tiger reserves in 18 states and tiger presence extends to atleast four others. The tiger is truly representative in its range, found in diverse ecosystems — along the Himalayan foothills of Haryana through to Uttarakhand, UP,  Bihar, North Bengal, extending upto Assam; in the sholas of the Western Ghats, the deciduous forests of the Eastern Ghats, the evergreens of the northeast,  and the sal jungles of central India. It thrives in the dry forests of Rajasthan and in the mangrove delta of Sunderbans. The big cat has been known to survive in the higher ranges of Nainital, and even above 10,000 feet in the Himalayas — in Sikkim, Arunachal.

The tiger was made the national animal as its numbers were declining, there was an urgent need to protect it.

More importantly, the idea of protecting the tiger was not just about saving this one animal, however charismatic it is. Saving the tiger meant that we saved its forests — forests from which rivers birthed and flowed, that heralded monsoons, nourished our soils, and served as carbon sinks.

The tiger is not just the soul of India. Saving the tiger means that the ecosystems it lives in, which sustain India, thrive too.

This is why saving the tiger must rise above politics and continue to represent the nation.

Writer

Prerna Bindra Prerna Bindra @prernabindra

Though a city-dweller, Prerna Singh Bindra is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book, The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017.

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