The majestic Asiatic Lion (Panthera Leo Persica) calls Gujarat its home, and according to a 2015 census, around 523 big cats live in the protected areas of the Gir forest. However, the state government recently admitted in the Gujarat Assembly that around 184 lions died in two years (2016 and 2017).
Of the 184 deaths, 32 lions died due to unnatural causes. Many reasons can be attributed to the spike in unnatural deaths, but at the root of the problem is the alarming fact that 45-55 percent of Gir’s lion population lives outside the protected areas.
Now the Gujarat High Court has intervened taking suo motu cognisance and issued notices to the state government and the Centre; the next hearing on the matter will be held on 18 April.
Gir’s Problem: Too Many Lions!
On 5 March, the state’s Forest Minister Ganpat Vasava told the Gujarat Assembly that the unnatural deaths occur due to road accidents, open wells with no concrete parapets, railway tracks passing through the protected areas and forests, and electric fences securing agricultural land.
Unnatural deaths happened because around 40-45 percent lions live outside the protected areas of Gir forest and are likely to meet with road and rail accidents or get electrocuted while entering farm lands.HS Singh, Wildlife conservationist and member of the National Board of Wildlife
Clearly the Gir National Park has more far more Asiatic lions than it can handle. In fact, HS Singh adds that the Asiatic Lion now shares the territory with a growing leopard population as well. He estimates there are over 500 leopards living there. They also compete with the lion for territory and food, pushing even more lions out of the protected area.
In 2016, 104 lions including 33 cubs died in Gujarat, whereas 80 lions including 38 cubs died in the year 2017. In all 12 lions died of unnatural causes in 2016 while 20 lions in 2017 died of unnatural causes.
PIL Blames Gujarat’s Conservation Measures
Advocate Hemang Shah filed a PIL on the unnatural lion deaths and is assisting the court in the case. According to him the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had published a report claiming that wells have been barricaded with the help of the state governments.
“If that report is true then either new wells have been constructed or barricades on the existing wells have been broken, or its just on paper. I have also demanded for a complete ban on vehicles passing through forests after sunset. In 2010 the state government had proposed to close these roads but due to public pressure they have not done it.”
Without disagreeing with Shah, it may well be argued that Gujarat’s conservators are fighting a losing battle. They have clearly done well over the years in raising the population of the lions and other big cats. This has inevitably led to greater human vs big cat conflict, as the causes of the unnatural deaths reveal. One solution has been staring Gujarat in the face for years but has steadfastly been ignored.
Give the Asiatic Lion a Second Home
In the 2018 CAG report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has lauded Gujarat’s efforts in conservation of lions but at the same time stated that over 54.6 percent lions live outside protected areas and that the government has not approved new protected areas in the last decade.
According to Conservation Scientist Ravi Chellam, “In 1994, about 30 percent of the lions, which means more than 1,000 of them, died in Serengeti National Park in Africa due to canine distemper. I’m not saying it is guaranteed to happen in India, but if it happens it will be too late to act as our ENTIRE population of wild Asiatic lions are in and around Gir Forest, and could be decimated by a single epidemic. Translocation is like buying the Asiatic Lion an insurance policy, a safety net.”
Wildlife activist Faiyaz A Khudsar had filed a PIL in the SC in 2006 seeking translocation of lions from Gir to Madhya Pradesh. He said, “Distributing lions is the best idea and we have lost a big opportunity in not sending them to MP already. They are all concentrated in one area, now if there is an epidemic, protecting lions will be difficult.”
Translocation of Lions Going Slow
The Supreme Court had issued a directive to move lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh on 15 April 2013. However, things are moving at a very slow pace as stated by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, GK Sinha.
The SC has issued directive that lions do need to be translocated but under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines. Translocation is not an easy process as per IUCN, 33 studies are to be conducted before translocation is done. So, this process will take some time.GK Sinha, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), Gujarat
Ravi Chellam, who was a member of an expert committee formed by the SC to implement translocation, said, “It will be 5 years and counting since the SC ordered translocation of lions. Around 2-3 weeks ago the matter was again heard in response to a contempt petition filed in 2017 demanding action against the government of Gujarat and India for not implementing the SC April 2013 order. Does the SC order carry any validity?”
When asked by when the translocation programme will be completed, GK Sinha said, “I cannot comment on when the translocation procedure will be completed, that is something the Government of India can answer.”
Tigers Get ‘Lion’s Share’ of Funding
The Asiatic lion and the Bengal tiger are classified as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, when it comes to fund allocation for conservation, Project Tiger received Rs 1,007 crore between 2012 and 2017 from the Centre, whereas the mighty Asiatic Lions only got Rs 25 crore.
The Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr Harsh Vardhan stated that Gujarat government had sought central funding to the tune of Rs 135 crore and had proposed bearing a share of Rs 15 crore for lion conservation.
Vardhan stated during last year’s monsoon Session of the Parliament, “The requisite funds were not available under the centrally sponsored scheme – ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats (IDWH)’. The Gujarat government was advised to review the proposal and prioritise activities up to Rs 1 crore,” the minister replied to the query.
Gujarat Starts Project Lion
With habitat loss and increase in the number of lions, the Gujarat government has planned to start Project Lion, which aims at protecting the big cat, especially those that stray out of protected areas.
PCCF of Gujarat, GK Sinha told The Quint, “The government has done a lot to protect the lions of Gujarat. In the current budget itself Rs 4 Crore has been allocated to ‘Project Lion’. The Project aims at preserving corridors, eco-sensitive zones and lions moving out of the protected areas. The project has been introduced to ensure a comprehensive, systematic and scientific management of lions that stray out of the protected areas.”
The Chief Justice himself said that this not an adversarial litigation, this is something that we have to work for the benefit of the lions.Hemang Shah, Advocate, Gujarat High Court