“Dilli ke Patrakar" (journalist from Delhi). In spite of staying with the Saharia community in a hut (locally known as pataur) for over a year, extending support and help in the relocation and rehabilitation of villagers from within the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and of my subsequent, more than 10-year association with Kuno and its neighbourhood communities, this is still how I am locally known.

I first went to Kuno in 1999 with a friend at the invitation of the then divisional forest officer (DFO), J.S. Chauhan, now chief conservator of forests (CCF). In those days, only one bus used to ply between Vijaypur tehsil and Arrod village and I walked seven kilometres on a water-logged and muddy trail to Agraa village to meet him. Today many buses ply between Vijaypur and Agraa.

The Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh. The total area of 1,269 square kilometres (sq. km) is now managed as the Kuno Wildlife Division, Sheopur. That includes about 924 sq. km of the surrounding forest habitat of Sheopur Forest Division that has been brought under the Kuno Wildlife Division, besides the sanctuary area of 344.686 sq. km. These changes were made to prepare the area for the introduction of a new population of lions.

The sanctuary derives its name from the Kuno, a tributary of the river Chambal; this perennial river flows through the middle, bisecting the sanctuary. The sanctuary was notified as the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in 1981, but it is popularly known as the Kuno Palpur Sanctuary owing to a seventh century fort in Palpur, situated on the banks of the river Kuno. This used to be the capital of the Palpur jagir under the Scindia dynasty of Gwalior. Palpur is one of the biggest evacuated villages within the sanctuary and there is an old forest rest house on the banks of the river Kuno which has been a very important destination for me: I stayed there almost six years for my research and continue to visit.

Today, free-ranging Asiatic lions (panthera leo persica) are found only in the Gir National Park and Sanctuary and its surroundings. The lion population fell to its lowest number in 1893 when only about 18-20 of the beasts remained. Since then it has shown a remarkable recovery. But if a small population of large carnivores is restricted to a single site, it faces a variety of extinction threats.

So the Asiatic lions of the Gir forest are among the most threatened populations of large carnivores in the world and require immediate measures to ensure their long-term survival. To realize evolutionary potential, survival and to promote genetic vigour, it is desirable that wildlife populations be widely distributed in their former historic, geographical ranges. Thus, the reintroduction concept has been developed to ensure long-term survival of the species by creating a new, free-ranging population in areas from where the species had totally disappeared.

To minimize the extinction threats to Asiatic lions, a survey was conducted to identify potential sites for reintroduction. Several potential sites were surveyed, based on sociological and ecological parameters, and ultimately the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was selected as the most suitable for a second, free-ranging population of Asiatic lions.

When the site was selected, the first task was to relocate and rehabilitate 24 villages from within the sanctuary. A cabinet sub-committee of the Madhya Pradesh government visited Palpur village in January 1996 to talk to the villagers, and then over 1,500 families, mainly from the Saharia tribe, were rehabilitated, reducing the biotic pressures drastically. I started habitat monitoring and prey base estimation within the sanctuary after the villagers’ relocation and rehabilitation.

The forest of Kuno is classified as a northern, tropical, dry, deciduous forest and is dominated by species such as Kardhai, Khair, Dhawa, Salai and extensive savannah woodland. The sanctuary supports very rich faunal diversity that includes fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The important prey species include chital, chinkara, sambar, nilgai, four-horned antelope, wild pig and the common langur. Leopard, dhole and grey wolf are the main carnivores; occasionally, a tiger sighting is also reported from the region. Today, Kuno is ready to receive Gujarat’s lions with a very encouraging trend of a prey base that is almost 50 animals per sq. km.

Someday soon, I will huddle in a bed at Palpur guesthouse, listen to the alarm calls of the chital and know that the lions of Kuno are on the move. This is the goal I worked towards—to realize the dream of rehabilitated villagers from the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and many staff and researchers.

Faiyaz A. Khudsar has a PhD in biodiversity assessment and prey base estimation in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh is the place that has been chosen for the translocation of lions from Gir in Gujarat. He’s currently a senior scientist at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi.