It is a tale of two large carnivores. While authorities have dragged their feet over finding another home for the lion to ensure its survival in case of unseen dangers, they have been making plans to reintroduce the cheetah, which was declared extinct from the country in the early 1950s.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court of India had directed the central government to establish a second home for Asiatic lions in India but the latter failed to do so. Instead, the central government recently returned to the Supreme Court seeking permission for the reintroduction of cheetah even though the apex court rejected it earlier. The issue gains significance in light of the deaths of at least 23 lions over the last month.

Environmentalists feel that there is a need to weigh whether reintroduction of the cheetah should take precedence over recovery plans for critically endangered species such as the great Indian bustard, gharial, dugong and others. They also question the wisdom of introducing another predator species in view of the high human-animal conflict across the country.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court had directed India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to take urgent steps for the re-introduction of the Asiatic lion from Gir forests to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. The Supreme Court had asked the authorities to carry out the order in its “letter and spirit” within six months (by October 2013) and quashed the Environment Ministry’s plan to reintroduce cheetah in India.

Lion deaths in Gir

In the last one month, at least 23 lions have died in the Gir forests in Gujarat and authorities have been citing several reasons for their death.

23 lions died in Gujarat in the last one month. Photo credit: Samarth V Dangre /Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC Y 4.0]

“We can’t attribute only one reason to [lion] deaths in Gir...Few deaths are due to infighting, which is a natural phenomenon in lions. Secondly, there are indications of viral infection,” said DT Vasavada, chief conservator of forests, Gujarat.

Vasadava added, “The entire Gir forests is not at risk and it is only one pocket that is affected. All deaths are in a small area of 25 square kilometres. Right now all the effort is to save the remaining lions and screen the entire surrounding area. In the nearby area, we have rescued 31 animals and kept them under observation. They are healthy so far.”

A Gujarat government official said that the entire Gir and surrounding areas have been screened. “For this, about 140 teams were deployed involving 550 persons and this continued for about eight-nine days,” said the official, who did not wish to be identified. “At present, we have not found similar symptoms outside the affected pocket. Experts and officials from Gujarat, the Wildlife Institute of India, the environment ministry and several other national institutions have come to assist.”

Meanwhile, samples have also been taken from the lions who died in Gir and tested.

“In another spurt of illness in Gir lions, the ICMR-National Institute of Virology Pune received a total of 80 samples of nasal, ocular and rectal swabs from 27 Gir lions which were sick and under treatment and observation at Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh, Gujarat. Specimens were again tested for Canine Distemper virus by using molecular methods. One or more samples from 21 out of 27 Gir lions have tested positive for CDV [Canine Distemper virus]. This indicates active disease transmission among the Gir lions,” said the Indian Council of Medical Research last week in a statement.

The Council said that that “lions should be immediately vaccinated with the available vaccine for CDV” and that “since CDV is transmitted by airborne route as well as infected body secretions, healthy lions from Gir Forest may be shifted to an alternate suitable location.”

Lions continue to wait for their second home

Even though the Supreme Court directed for it and experts advocated for Gujarat to translocate lions to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat has dragged its feet. Since 2013, the Supreme Court’s order has been unsuccessfully challenged several times.

“In a country where there is no compliance of an order of the Supreme Court, what is cheetah or lion?” said Ajay Dubey, who has been fighting a case in the Supreme Court on the issue. “The example set by Gujarat is very dangerous. The deaths of lions have shown that even in the case of wildlife conservation, people can do anything for political interests. These deaths are certainly a warning bell. The commercial interest of tourism because of which Gujarat talks about the Gujarati pride is against the provisions of the Constitution, according to which lions are national property and not of some region or state.” Dubey said he he would once again approach the apex court to ensure the implementation of the 2013 order.

Despite Supreme Court’s order, lions are yet to get their second home in India. Photo credit: Ayush Baheti/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC Y 4.0]

The main concern of wildlife experts has been that having just one habitat for lions in the country can be dangerous to their population in case of a danger like natural calamity or virus outbreak. The example that is often used to buttress this argument is that 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 due to the virus led to deaths of hundreds of lions.

A similar incident can trigger the extinction of species in India in light of the smaller habitat and smaller population. In 2015, the lion population was pegged at 523. But in 2016 and 2017, as per Gujarat government figures, a total of 184 lions died in Gujarat. The new lion census is expected to take place early next year.

The cheetah reintroduction conundrum

The story of cheetah in India may not be similar to that of the lion, but what is similar in case of both species is the misplaced priorities. While lions are not able to move out of Gujarat due to the issue of state’s pride, cheetah reintroduction is pushed in the name of national pride.

Historically, India was home to cheetahs but according to the government they were declared extinct in 1952. It is the only large mammal that has gone extinct since India’s independence. If the cheetah is reintroduced in the country, India would become probably the only country in Asia to have all the major big cats (lions, tigers and leopards included).

Asiatic cheetah cubs with a dog in Dharwad, Karnataka in 1897. Asiatic cheetahs were declared extinct from India in 1952. Photo credit: Major G.S. Rodon/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons]

Reintroduction of the cheetah has always been on the cards since its extinction decades ago, but it gained serious traction during the tenure of Jairam Ramesh as India’s environment minister in 2009. It was during that period, when a detailed Project Cheetah was envisaged on the lines of Project Tiger, which is a focused programme for ensuring the welfare of tigers in the country. But it was shelved in 2013 after Supreme Court order.

But five years after that order, earlier this year, the National Tiger Conservation Authority filed an application in the Supreme Court stating that bringing cheetah back “would have a very special significance for the national conservation ethic and ethos”.

“It would focus attention on the conservation of our neglected grasslands and our open forests just like tiger conservation has led to the protection of our forested national parks and sanctuaries. It would also enable the conservation of such gravely endangered species occurring only in grasslands and open forests, such as the wolf, desert cat, desert fox and the great Indian bustard,” said the National Tiger Conservation Authority in its application.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority said that the reintroduction of cheetah would be a “matter of great conservation significance and pride for the country”.

Should cheetah be brought at cost of other endangered species?

In its application, the National Tiger Conservation Authority also argued that there is very little difference between the African and Asiatic subspecies of cheetah. It, however, admitted that though the Iranian cheetah is genetically closest to cheetah that went extinct in India, it is now difficult to get them from Iran due to its small population size in Iran. Therefore, it said, India will bring cheetah from southern Africa stating that it would provide “best genetic stock” and that cheetah from southern Africa are ancestral to all cheetah subspecies, including the Asiatic one.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority has also tried to dismiss another argument that cheetah reintroduction was not part of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016), stating that just because it was not mentioned in Plan does not mean a “reintroduction programme is barred forever in future”.

Experts are not convinced with the arguments in favour of bringing cheetah to India.

“While I am not averse to the concept of re-wilding, I am not sure if there’s adequate and ideal habitat for a large-ranging carnivore such as the cheetah in India at present,” said independent wildlife researcher Priya Singh, who worked on the cheetah reintroduction project in 2010-2011. “If we go by the argument that cheetah will function as a mascot for grassland conservation, where in India have we got large enough grasslands that can support a long-term viable population of this species?”

In response to National Tiger Conservation Authority’s application in the Supreme Court, advocate Ritwick Dutta filed a submission against the reintroduction of the cheetah last week. “The issue as to whether the African cheetah should be imported into India and whether the same is an alien species is best left to be decided by scientific experts in the field in accordance with the latest scientific developments,” he argued. “However, there are larger conservation issues, which need to be considered before any decision is taken for the reintroduction of the cheetah. Specifically, given the limited resources (both human and financial), there is a need to have conservation priorities.”

Experts want the limited resources available for other critically endangered species like GIB. Photo by Saurabhsawantphoto/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC Y 4.0]

He said that there is a need to weigh whether reintroduction of cheetah should take precedence over recovery plans for critically endangered species such as the Asiatic lion, the great Indian bustard and others.

One of the major arguments of the National Tiger Conservation Authority has been that cheetah reintroduction will lead to enhanced protection of grasslands. Dutta, however, disagreed with it and submitted to Supreme Court that, “there are no reasons to presume that merely by introducing a charismatic species such as cheetah the grasslands will be protected.”

The path to reintroduce cheetah in India may not be easy for the government as a recent news report revealed that an Supreme Court-appointed panel advising against and stating that India does not have the required habitat and prey density to support cheetahs.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.