New Delhi: The endangered Asiatic Lion, currently restricted to one population in Gujarat’s Gir reserve, may not be reintroduced in Madhya Pradesh, part of its original range in the country, and where it was last recorded in the 19th century, because the ministry of environment and forests is not keen on doing so.
The over-two decade old plan has acquired political overtones in recent years with Prime Minister Narendra Modi making it a matter of Gujarati pride when he was chief minister of the state.
The plan to relocate some of the lions was cleared by the Supreme Court in April 2013.
The court asked the Union environment ministry to relocate some of the lions to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno reserve by October 2013.
The court formed a panel that included officials from the ministry, the two states and independent wildlife experts. By October 2013, the panel had come up with a plan but the process got stuck again with the Gujarat government appealing the apex court’s order. The court rejected the appeal in August 2014.
Last week, the environment ministry finally called a meeting of the expert committee.
A senior member of the committee said the meeting essentially took stock of the progress.
“We don’t see any great movement happening on the ground on the project soon,” the member said. “The issue will probably go back to the Supreme Court once again. Things are not positive or inspiring at all. It is more a political issue than a conservation issue,” said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity.
S.C. Pant, who is Gujarat’s principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), declined comment.
Environment ministry officials say the expert committee has been asked to “revise the action plan” within a month.
They add that officials of the Madhya Pradesh government who attended the meeting said there was now adequate prey for the lions at Kuno —one of the reasons ostensibly cited by Gujarat to support its opposition to the relocation.
The Madhya Pradesh government has already spent over Rs.60 crore on development of the Kuno sanctuary and relocation of villagers.
In a recent interview, minister of environment and forests Prakash Javadekar declined to comment on the progress of the relocation exercise and claimed the matter was still before the court.
A second member of the expert group, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said he doesn’t think the ministry will push for the relocation given Modi’s previous opposition to it.
The need for relocation was felt because environmentalists and wildlife conservations feared that an epidemic or natural calamity could wipe out the species.
The plan involved relocation of 80 lions to Kuno.
Gir has around 411 lions, according to the most recent census conducted in 2010. Instances of lions straying out of the reserve have increased in recent years as the population rose.