No second home for lions even as numbers grow
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New Delhi: The substantial increase in the Asiatic Lion’s population in Gujarat may be good news for wildlife lovers but has experts worried about the implications of rising numbers in a limited area.
As their population rises in the Gir forests of Gujarat, Asiatic lions are venturing out of the protected areas in their last home on the planet, increasing the threat of man-animal conflict. There are also fears of an epidemic breaking out among the animals as they remain confined to the Gir forests.
In particular, activists are agitated about the non-implementation of a Supreme Court order that directed shifting some of Gujarat’s lions to the Kuno wildlife sanctuary in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The Supreme Court, in its April 2013 order, directed the Union environment ministry to shift some lions to Kuno by October 2013.
Following this, an expert group, including officials of the environment ministry, Gujarat government, Madhya Pradesh government and individual experts such as Ravi Chellam, Y.V. Jhala and A.J.T. Johnsingh, prepared a draft action plan for shifting the lions.
The Gujarat government appealed against the apex court order, saying the lions will face competition for food from Kuno’s tigers, and the threat of poaching. The court rejected the appeal, but there has not been much movement since then.
Meanwhile, in the wild, lion numbers have grown.
On Sunday, the Gujarat government released the latest lion census figures, which said Gir’s population of Panthera leo persica, the Asiatic lion, has grown nearly 27% from 411 in 2010 to 523 in 2015. Asiatic lions, which evolved in Europe, are believed to have moved South over millennia, and now only survive in Gujarat. It is now classified as an endangered species. The African lion, with larger numbers, live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Regarding the shifting of lions, an environment ministry official said, “Recently, there has been some movement on the issue, but it could have been faster had Gujarat not been so uncooperative.” The expert panel which met in February, meanwhile, decided to revise the original action plan.
Ajay Dubey, secretary of non-governmental organization (NGO) Prayatna which has long been fighting for moving the lions, said the NGO has filed a contempt petition for non-implementation of the order.
“It is great news that the population of lions has increased. But it is very painful that the order of the Supreme Court of the country is not being implemented. We are now thinking of sitting on dharna at Janta Mantar to highlight that their numbers have increased. The issue now requires urgent action,” Dubey said.
“Gujarat has already exhausted all legal remedies available,” said a member of the expert committee, who requested not to be named. He said the state government is still looking for reasons to try and stop the transfer of the lions. “Sooner or later, they will have to do it. They are coming around to this realization. The pace is still very slow and none is sure how and when it will be done,” he added.
Asked about the space crunch at Gir, state minister for environment, forest and tribal development Mangubhai Chhaganbhai Patel said provisions are being made for increasing the protected area for lions. He, however, refused speak about moving the lions, saying the matter is pending in court.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh has been quietly preparing the second home for Gujarat’s lions, and has informed the expert group that the prey base in Kuno has increased. Its government has already spent over Rs.60 crore on developing the sanctuary and relocating villages.
The lion has been repeatedly called the pride of Gujarat by the state’s chief minister, Anandiben Patel, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his stint as Gujarat chief minister. Modi also opposed the translocation idea when he headed the state.
Lion reintroduction is a long-term programme encompassing action over 25 years in accordance with the guidelines issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The plan was to bring several dozen lions to Kuno over a period of 15-20 years.