Stuck between territorial politicians and bureaucratic files, the king of the jungle can’t find a way out. The Asiatic lion has only one habitat in the world – the Indian state of Gujarat. It has been five years since the Supreme Court of India ordered for an alternative home for the endangered species. But the Asiatic lion is yet to find its second abode.
While the lion population has witnessed a four-fold increase over 50 years until 2015, according to a study by HS Singh, a former forest service officer, published last year in the journal Current Science, lions continue to be an endangered species. From just a few dozens in the first and second decade of the 20th century, the population of Asiatic lions has risen to 523 in 2015.
Their population is limited to only five protected areas in Gujarat – Gir National Park, Gir Sanctuary, Pania Sanctuary, Mitiyala Sanctuary and Girnar Sanctuary covering 1,621 square km. This remains the only home for the lions even five years after India’s top court ordered the translocation of Asiatic lions. The single habitat is akin to keeping “all eggs in one basket”, feel experts, which increases risks for the lion population.
“With all the wild lions in Asia limited to one area, the risks to this population are huge in case of any catastrophe like a forest fire, a disease outbreak or an extreme weather event,” said Ravi Chellam, a veteran conservation scientist who has been working on wildlife conservation issues for over three decades. “The question is how do you mitigate such risks? What is the safety net? While acknowledging the success of conservation of lions in Gujarat, translocation is only to further improve the long-term conservation prospects of the species. It is in no way going to diminish the achievements of Gujarat.”
That is exactly the argument on which the Supreme Court had based its order on April 15, 2013 when it directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to “take urgent steps for the reintroduction of the Asiatic lion from Gir forests to Kuno” Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, neighbouring the state of Gujarat. It had asked the authorities to carry out the order in its “letter and spirit” within six months.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international body working for conservation of plants and animals, has also advised for the establishment of at least one other wild population for ensuring population safety and maximising genetic diversity.
Moreover, India’s current National Wildlife Action Plan, 2017-’31, a document that guides the conservation and welfare efforts for wildlife, as well as its previous version, also advocate for identifying “suitable alternative homes for single isolated populations of species” such as Asiatic lion and manage them as “protected areas” effectively.
While everyone agrees that translocation is the need of the hour, authorities are found dragging their feet on the issue.
Why is translocation important?
The translocation plan is neither new nor unscientific. It has been around since the early 1990s. Hundreds of millions of rupees have been spent by the government of India and the government of Madhya Pradesh for the reintroduction of lion to Kuno. The authorities even carried out extensive work for relocating villagers out of forests and increasing the prey base. But due to strong resistance from Gujarat, the plan never went ahead.
Concerns regarding risks of a single habitat to the big cat are not ill-founded. In 1994, lions in Serengeti, Tanzania, suffered from an outbreak of the canine distemper virus. The total population of lions in that landscape at that time was around 2,500 and the outbreak led to deaths of hundreds of them.
Thus, one of the arguments of the experts in India has been that if a similar epidemic spreads in Gir, it may lead to the extinction of species given their smaller habitat and smaller population.
Since the last lion population figures came in 2015, a total of 182 lions have died in Gujarat. In the summer of 2015 itself, 10 lions in Gir had died due to flooding in the region.
“The danger of keeping them only in Gir is in front of us,” said Ajay Dubey, a wildlife activist who works with a non-governmental organisation, Prayatna. “Last month, Gujarat government’s minister revealed in the Assembly that 182 lions died in 2016 and 2017 and of those 32 were unnatural deaths. This is the time for executing the Supreme Court’s order. Initially, only a small pride of lions are needed to start the process.”
There is another argument that the lion habitat is now saturated as it is also home to over 500 leopards. About 40% of the lions are now found outside the protected area.
There have been several instances of lions wandering in areas close to human habitation and this may lead to human-wildlife conflict. “Thus, it is very important to find an alternate home for lions,” Dubey explained. “Another major issue is about maintaining their genetic health. Translocation is also in line with India’s international commitments. But it is being stalled for political benefits and maintaining Gujarat’s brand value.”
Dubey recently approached the Supreme Court against the authorities for not executing the 2013 order. The plea was dismissed following the environment ministry’s promise to take action.
The Supreme Court had observed in 2013 that the relocation plan prepared by a team of experts was in accordance with international norms. In a statement made in Parliament in 2016 by Anil Madhav Dave, then environment minister, the plan to bring lions to Kuno encompasses action spread over two decades.
Road to implementation is tough
The plan may sound easy but implementation is challenging. For starters, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat has not completely supported the plan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his stint as Gujarat chief minister, had publicly opposed the idea.
Meanwhile, infrastructure development is taking a toll on the landscape around Gir and it is a cause for concern for the future of lions.
The Current Science study also warned about the massive “development of industries and ports, mining activities, rails and high-speed roads in the coastal area have already impacted the lions”. The study added that 10 lions were killed by trains between 2013 and 2015.
An official of the central environment ministry said that while a few meetings have taken place on the subject recently, there is nothing to show yet. “There has been some movement on the issue in past few months but it is yet to gather pace,” said the official, wishing anonymity. “It has not been executed for obvious reasons. Serious and determined efforts are yet to be made.”
Dubey, who has been fighting for the translocation of lions for several years, said the Gujarat government has exhausted all legal options to stall the translocation. “Nature is not our property and we have a duty to prevent the species from going extinct,” said Dubey. “The government of Madhya Pradesh is also responsible for sitting quietly against non-execution of the court’s order. The environment ministry, which was responsible for coordinating translocation, too has failed and has only been dragging its feet. It is the constitutional duty of both of them to carry this out. It is a clear case of criminal negligence and political conspiracy. All authorities involved are responsible whether previous governments or the present one.”
Chellam too rued the non-implementation of the court’s order. “Five years ago, the Supreme Court gave a detailed judgement directing that the translocation of lions should be implemented which is yet to happen,” he said. “The real issue is whether the rule of law is prevailing in India or not. Recently the court heard a contempt petition filed in this matter and even this hasn’t sparked any serious action. What is the value of the apex court’s judgement?”
Whether these lions will find a new home or meet the fate of their predecessors is something that remains to be seen.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.