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Time for a new home?

The recent deaths of Asiatic lions in Gir has raised the issue of their translocation to a safer place, discuss Ishan Kukreti and Rajat Ghai

Time for a new home?

Twenty-three Asiatic lions died between September 12 and October 1 and three more died on October 22. This has compelled wildlife activists to ask Gujarat to translocate lions outside the state, to ensure that the population is spread out and the danger of a species wipe-out is averted. But, Gujarat has always maintained that Gir is safe for its lions. The demand became pronounced after the Serengeti deaths and the issue gained momentum in 2006 when a Delhi-based non-profit, Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India, filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking for translocation.

In its judgement delivered on April 15, 2013, the Supreme Court agreed with the idea of shifting lions outside Gujarat to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh. "The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, through its wildlife biologists, had done considerable research at the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat since 1986. All those studies were geared to provide data which would help for the better management of the Gir forest and enhance prospects for the long-term conservation of lions at Gir, the single habitat of Asiatic lions in the world. The data collected by the wildlife biologists highlighted the necessity of a second natural habitat for its long-term conservation," the apex court stated in its judgement. It also made MoEF responsible for ensuring the translocation.

Gujarat filed a review and a curative petition in the same year, but the court rejected both. However, neither MoEF nor the Gujarat government took steps to translocate the lions. In 2014, Ajay Dubey, a Madhya Pradesh-based wildlife activist, filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court charging the now Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and the Gujarat state government with inaction. The petition was disposed off by the court in March this year after MoEF&CC said that an expert committee to oversee the translocation, formed as per the apex court's 2013 judgement, will hold meetings and send the minutes to the court to keep it updated about the process.

"The lions cannot be relocated unless it is ensured that the new habitat will be safe for them," says Bhushan Pandya, member of the Gujarat State Board for Wildlife. "In 1995, WII prepared a report on lion translocation which stipulated that a minimum 700 sq km is required for translocation, but so far only 345 sq km has been cleared. All the feasibility studies, such as prey base and carrying capacity, have also been done only on 345 sq km. The Madhya Pradesh government says it does not have the budget to acquire 700 sq km. So, how can the translocation take place?" Pandya asks. "The area of 700 sq km was mentioned to accommodate a population of about 100 lions. But a smaller area is not a constraint because initially only six to 10 lions will be translocated," Ravi Chellam, member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee, told DTE.

Vasavada says that the forest department has its own plans to conserve the species — by shifting some lions to the Barda sanctuary in Porbandar district, about 150 km from Gir. "Barda has no lions, cattle or dogs and the chances of lions contacting CDV are remote," Vasavada says. Experts, however, disagree. "The Barda sanctuary is linked to the Sasan and Dhari ranges. A male can cover vast areas in a single night and their movement increases during the mating season. Lions won't take much time to return to Gir," says Dave.

Packer too is gentle but firm in his criticism of India's lion management policies. "Given the recent expansion of Gir lions into the surrounding areas, it is just a matter of time before they disperse to neighbouring states. India's wildlife managers have for long cautioned against keeping all of the country's lions in one basket. I'm surprised that the relocation has been delayed until now," he says.

"Diseases and pathogens are natural to wildlife populations and, therefore, epidemics and sporadic deaths are a part of it. But, currently, we have all the lions in one place. The way to ensure the safety of the species is to establish a population in another place, far away from the present location," says Ashraf.

The Asiatic lion has survived the recent epidemic scare. It might not be so fortunate the next time. To jeopardise the survival of a species because it's the "pride" of a state is simply irrational.

(The views expressed are those of Down To Earth)

Ishan Kukreti and Rajat Ghai

Ishan Kukreti and Rajat Ghai

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