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Conservationists hail relocation of endangered Asiatic lions

Conservationists have hailed a high court ruling to relocate some of India's endangered Asiatic lions, but the decision has angered officials from Gujarat, the state that has been asked to share its big cats.

Lionesses at the Gir Sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Lionesses at the Gir Sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

NEW DELHI // Conservationists have hailed a high court ruling to relocate some of India’s endangered Asiatic lions, but the decision has angered officials from Gujarat, the state that has been asked to share its big cats.

The Supreme Court ruled on April 15 that spreading out the population would help the species to flourish and said it would permit the transfer of an as-yet-undetermined number of lions from the Gir sanctuary in Gujarat, into the state of Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno sanctuary. Nearly 400 Asiatic lions survive in the wild and they all live in Gir - a 1,600-square-kilometre patch of scrub in southern Gujarat.

The state’s political leaders and park officials from Gir opposed the court’s ruling, citing the importance of the lions’ political symbolism to their state and failed conservation efforts in other states.

The verdict has been seen as a snub to the Gujarat government and its chief minister Narendra Modi, who once said “the lions are the pride of Gujarat”.

Mr Modi, considered the front-runner to be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate in general elections next year, has himself often been praised as the “Lion of Gujarat”.

In a statement soon after the Supreme Court’s decision, Gujarat’s finance minister, Nitin Patel, said that his government has “decided to explore all legal options against the verdict”. No petitions to review the court’s verdict have been filed as yet. The court has given wildlife authorities six months to transfer the lions, after assessing how many should be moved.

Many conservationists welcomed the plan to increase the range of the lions.

Asad Rahmani, director of the Mumbai Natural History Society, said last week that “relocating some lions is a wonderful idea for the long-term survival of the species and should have been done much earlier”.

Gujarat has tended to its lions well as Gir’s population has increased from 100 a century ago, to 180 in 1974, to nearly 400 today.

“The planned translocation is not because of any deficiencies in the current management,” Ravi Chellam, a conservation scientist upon whose 1995 research the Gir-Kuno relocation plan is based, said yesterday. “In fact, I would like to term it as learning to manage success. Think of it as buying life insurance. It’s a safety net.”

The idea to transfer some of Gujarat’s lions elsewhere was first mooted 40 years ago when the Indian Board of Wildlife realised that a single epidemic could wipe out the Gir lion population.

In 1994, canine distemper – a viral disease that can also affect cats – led to the death of 400 lions in the Serengeti, M K Ranjitsinh, chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, told the Business Standard newspaper on Sunday.

The Asiatic lion is a protected species in India and is considered “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But the IUCN assessment considers the lion’s population stable and noted that the species had moved up a rang from its “critically endangered” level in 2000.

The actual transfer of the lions will be a meticulous and well-thought-out affair, said Mr Chellam, who is now the director of research and conservation at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.

“Since lions are social animals it is best to choose animals from a settled pride,” he said. “You want animals from within the protected area, because you want lions least used to people. You want animals that are normally hunting and feeding on wild prey, rather than those prone to killing livestock.”

As a first step, only five to eight lions will be moved – a small fraction of the total population at Gir, which already has a surplus of about 100 lions that live outside the inner protected zone of the sanctuary.

But in Gujurat there is fierce resistance to the relocation plans.

When Mr Chellam, along with a delegation from the Prague Zoo, visited Gir on April 16, he faced such hostility from sanctuary officials and from protesters that he left after only a day.

Some of these protests were organised by the Prakruti Nature Club, a conservation NGO based in Gujarat.

“A number of the locals living near the sanctuary were opposed to Ravi Chellam’s visit,” Dinesh Goswami, the founder of the Prakruti Nature Club, said on Wednesday. “It was a good thing he left when he did.”

Mr Goswami pointed out that Gujarat had, in the mid-1980s, donated a few Asiatic lions to Madhya Pradesh, and that there was no sign of them now. “And every time we catch a poacher here in Gir, it turns out that he is from Madhya Pradesh,” he said.

“So the people of Gujarat have become convinced of the fact that if our lions go to Kuno, they will die,” Mr Goswami said. “They won’t be able to protect the lions at all. They’re thinking only of the money they will make from tourists, and not about the well-being of the animals.”

SSubramanian@thenational.ae

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