April 15, 2013 is one of those days I will never forget in my life. I had flown in that morning from Delhi to Ahmedabad, accompanying a team from the Prague Zoo. We had a few meetings with senior forest officials in Gandhinagar to discuss conservation strategies for Asiatic lions, a species that the Prague Zoo was focussing on. The zoo was keen to get a few more lions from the Sakkarbaugh Zoo in Junagadh to boost their captive breeding population. We had very fruitful discussions with officers of the Gujarat government. After lunch, we hit the road to meet the Conservator of Forests in Junagadh before reaching Sasan-Gir for the night.
In the afternoon, I received a call from Delhi and was told that the Forest Bench of the Supreme Court of India had ordered the translocation of lions from Gir to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh within six months. I had served as an expert witness to the Forest Bench on this matter between February and June 2012, attending hearings once a week and sometimes twice a week, travelling from Bengaluru, where I was based, to Delhi. This was wonderful news, as establishing a second free-ranging population of wild Asiatic lions was crucial for building on the remarkably successful conservation that the people and government of Gujarat had achieved over the decades.
It is now well over nine years since the lion translocation judgment was published. The lions are still to be translocated to Kuno despite the six-month time frame that was specified by the Supreme Court in 2013. While this is disappointing, I am reasonably optimistic, based on Project Lion which was announced by the Prime Minister in his Independence Day address on August 15, 2020.
The goal of Project Lion as articulated in the 2020 document is: “Asiatic lions should play their ecological role and retain their evolutionary potential. The future generation of Indians should be proud of their natural heritage which will be preserved as Nature intended it to be.”
One of the objectives of the project is “To avert any risk of extinction to Asiatic lions and ensure their perpetuation for generations to come.”
The goal and objectives of Project Lion can only be achieved if one or more additional populations of free-ranging wild lions are established. The Project Lion document outlines plans for such actions and Kuno is rated as the most suitable habitat to play host to the lions. This is what gives me hope.
What did the Supreme Court order of April 15, 2013 say?
The operative parts of the order are: “MoEF’s [Ministry of Environment and Forests] decision for re-introduction of Asiatic lion from Gir to Kuno is that of utmost importance so as to preserve the Asiatic lion, an endangered species, which cannot be delayed. Reintroduction of Asiatic lion, needless to say, should be in accordance with the guidelines issued by IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] and with the active participation of experts in the field of re-introduction of endangered species. MoEF is therefore directed to take urgent steps for re-introduction of Asiatic lion from Gir forests to Kuno.”
The order directed the MoEF to set up an expert committee to advise the government and monitor the implementation of the translocation of lions. The order also specified a clear time frame: “The order be carried out in its letter and spirit and within a period of 6 months from today.”
What is the current status of implementation of the court’s order?
The Madhya Pradesh State Forest Department has done all that was required to prepare Kuno for the reintroduction of Asiatic lions. This is acknowledged explicitly in Appendix 3 of the Project Lion document, “Comparisons of the following parameters between Gir and Kuno explicate Kuno as being ready for receiving and nurturing a second population of Asiatic Lions in India.”
Despite this, there has been no real action to translocate lions. The Supreme Court appointed expert committee, of which I am a member, hasn’t met since December 2016. In spite of this, I remain hopeful, primarily based on what Project Lion states. “The Gir Protected Area population and a reintroduced population in Kuno National Park has the potential to achieve the ultimate goal, provided sufficient inviolate space is made available for lions in their protected habitat.”
What has happened to the lions in these nine years? In other words, what is their current conservation status?
The lion population has continued to increase, as has the area in which they are found. In 2010, the population was estimated to be 411, spread over about 20,000 sq km;in 2015 it was 523, in 22,000 sq km; and in 2020 it was 674 lions in 30,000 sq km. While such an increase in lion numbers would be viewed positively, it is important to keep in mind that out of the 30,000 sq km in which lions are reported from, only 1,648 sq km are protected. Much of the remaining areas are classified as unprotected forests, wastelands, and agriculture land, with most of it dominated by the resident human population and a variety of livestock. Clearly, this is not ideal.
Numerous lions have also been reported to have died, sometimes an average of around 100 lion deaths reported in a year. Quite a few of these lions have died due to disease, including the deadly Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) and babesiosis.
Quoting from Project Lion, the “Recent outbreak of Babesiosis and CDV in Gir has already resulted into mortality of at least more than 60 lions during past two years (2018-19). As the world is currently witnessing the rapid spread of corona virus during COVID outbreak, similarly, the CDV can also spread very fast within the entire lion population of Gir, especially when containment is not possible due to feral animal vectors in a landscape that remains connected for disease transmission. This necessitates urgency for establishing geographically distant and distinct populations of a minimum size and subsequently manage them as a metapopulation with Gir. In-situ lion conservation would benefit from as many such free ranging populations as possible. One such potential site identified by the Wildlife Institute of India was Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.”
What does the future look like for the lions and especially for establishing an additional free-ranging population of wild lions?
The long delay in implementing the 2013 Order of the Supreme Court and lack of real, on-the-ground progress over several years is disappointing. As I have already mentioned, the plans outlined in the Project Lion document of 2020 are progressive. It recognises the risks of having all your eggs in one basket. It strongly advocates translocation and the establishment of additional and geographically distant free-ranging populations of wild Asiatic lions. It makes it very clear that of all the proposed sites, Kuno is most suitable and based on quantified and objective criteria it is also ready for the lions.
More recently, there have been some worrying developments. With the plan to introduce African cheetahs in Kuno in a fairly advanced stage, it seems very likely that the translocation of lions to Kuno would be delayed till the introduced cheetah population establishes itself, which is estimated to take about 15 years. That would be an absolute travesty and a betrayal of the sacrifices made by hundreds of families of Sahariyas who relocated to make space for the lions.
My fears are reinforced by the recent written reply (July 25, 2022) in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of State for Forest, Environment and Climate Change to a question related to the government’s efforts to translocate lions to different parts of India. The Minister’s reply only mentions potential sites in Gujarat and facilitation of natural dispersal of lions. There is no mention of the 2013 Order of the Supreme Court or Kuno, which is ready and waiting.
I sincerely hope on this World Lion Day (August 10, 2022) that the plans of Project Lion, especially the translocation of lions to Kuno will be acted upon immediately and my fears are unfounded. This will not only be in line with the 2013 Order of the Supreme Court, but, more importantly, will be a very important step in ensuring the long-term survival of wild and free-ranging Asiatic lions.
Ravi Chellam is CEO, Metastring Foundation and coordinator of the Biodiversity Collaborative