It was supposed to be Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Neverland Ranch.
The website of his pet project — Lion Safari — expands on that dream rather crudely: ‘It was a dream come true. The first pair of lions reached the Lion Breeding Centre and Lion Safari, Etawah, in April 2014. They roared on arrival’.
That roar is now muted after the death of five cubs in one month. These were not the first deaths: In October, lioness Lakshmi died, followed by a lion, Vishnu. Another lioness Kunwari is reported ill though the officials say she is fine. Experts are divided in their opinion on whether this project should be continued. One group is of the view that there is no climatic difference between Gujarat and Etawah and lions can survive in Uttar Pradesh. Another lot says that old gazetteer records show animals like neelgai, panther, fox, sambhar, bear, wolf, hyena, hare, etc in Etawah but no mention of Asiatic lions.
There are political overtones to this Rs 100 crore project as well: The deaths will hit Mr Yadav’s plans for a grand opening of the safari, located in his native district, before the 2017 assembly polls.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi targeted the SP during the general elections, saying that Gujarat gave UP the lions but Mr Yadav and company could not handle them and that the father-son duo should visit Gujarat’s Gir forest to see how safaris are done. With the lion safari not taking off, Mr Yadav’s son and UP chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, has now expanded the scope of the project — just the way politicians do when they sense failure in development projects. He now wants to convert the ‘lion safari’ into an ‘animal safari’ by bringing in leopards, deer, bears and antelopes till lion cubs can be reared and released into the forest.
By all accounts, this project has not been thought through even though it has all the clearances. It exists because the father and son want it. And so it did not matter whether it had the required personnel or the infrastructure. It also has a political timeline.
So the safari bureaucracy will experiment once again without getting to the root cause of the deaths. Or even if they do, will they make it public?