The King who roams the streets

Fears of being wiped out from diseases as also rising numbers of the Asiatic lions have been behind the demand for its translocation to other parts of the country. Despite a Supreme Court order, this has not happened.

While the African cheetah settles down (hopefully) into its new environment in India’s Kuno National Park, the Asiatic lion waits patiently, amidst a plethora of daily challenges. More than a couple of roads criss-cross the Gir region, and reports cite 20 goods trains passing at night through the forests which have resident population of 100 lions. Man-animal conflicts, death by drowning in open wells, shrinking habitats as numbers rise (both of humans and lions), and last but not least, the low genetic diversity from inbreeding that makes the animal vulnerable to infections, are among the concerns for the sub-species found only in India.

In 2018 there were around 110 deaths from canine distemper virus or CDV (from exposure to dogs that are preyed upon), another 134 the next year and 85 deaths in 2020. Where the CDV lowers the immunity, infection from babesia protozoa rising from ticks becomes fatal, raising concerns of the species being wiped out. In the 90s, around 3000 African lions died from a CDV outbreak in the Serengeti. All these dangers had prompted the recommendation by experts to disperse the Asiatic lion population geographically by translocation.

Numbers, as low as 20, in the early part of last century have improved and touched the 600 mark in the 2020 census. But more than half of this population today lives outside the 1400 sq km area of the Gir National Park, according to conservationist and expert on lions, Ravi Chellam. CCTV footages give ample proof and the lions have also settled in some numbers along the coast too. As Chellam who has been studying Asiatic lions for almost four decades says, “they can be in your backyard or my garden, that’s the scenario today.”

Do we not owe Panthera leo persica, the Asiatic lion, found only here in India, more than to allow it to walk our streets like stray cattle or dogs? Can we afford to wait till conflict situations escalate? Or disease wipes them out?

Siesta time! Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

These considerations brought out in a PIL prompted the apex court to pass an order in April 2013 directing that a few lions be translocated to Kuno within six months. To date, the order remains on paper. With the latest charismatic entrant into Kuno, any move to translocate lions to Kuno will take a back seat by a few years, at least 15, says Chellam. The same order of 2013 had turned down a proposal to move African cheetahs to Kuno! But in 2020, the court allowed for the same.

In the latest development, earlier this year, the Centre has told the court that a status report would be filed within six months on the basis of expert advice regarding moving lions to Kuno under the present occupation by cheetahs. The cheetah falls below the tiger and lion on the apex predator scale.

The Asiatic lion has taken things in its stride and dispersed from Gir and its home range now covers 30,000 sq kms. The carrying capacity of Gir is only around 250 and with over 600 lions, the dispersal was expected. Lions are spread across nine districts of Saurashtra that include Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli, Bhavnagar, Rajkot, Botad, Porbander, Jamnagar and Surendranagar. Most of this does not fall under protected areas.

Walking down the streets of Gujarat’s villages, prides of 5-8 lions have become a regular sight. Sometimes residents wake up to a roar on the house terrace, and at times a security guard sleeps through a lion leaping across the gate to peek into the apartment complex. The viral videos paint a pathetic picture of this predator and serve as a sore reminder of how human population and habitat loss has left many of our wildlife homeless and in direct confrontation with humans.

Gujarat has quoted everything from poor prey in Kuno to poor management of tiger population by Madhya Pradesh, and even gone to claim that tigers and sloth bears pose danger to the lion! Loath to let go its lions, the state of Gujarat has plans now to move around 40 lions to Barda wildlife sanctuary within the state and around 100 kms from Gir. Inviolate space of around 1000 sq kms is being envisaged. This will call for resettlement of Maldharis who are the local pastoral community.

Meanwhile the Centre and Madhya Pradesh government spent over $3 million for relocating 24 human settlements from Kuno-Palpur and towards other habitat interventions. What was meant for the Project Lion will now hopefully benefit the cheetah. The funds for Project Lion have been tellingly halved.

Six other sites apart from the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary had been identified under Project Lion in 2020. These include some protected areas in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, as envisaged also by the Project Lion, when first launched in 1972 as the first ever species conservation program. Perhaps, it is time to explore some of these.

Safe with mother. Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

Lions are keystone predator species that help keep the balance in the wilderness. By preying on herbivores they help preserve the grasslands and foliage. This makes it an important reason why we must protect the lion. But usefulness apart, this is a species found only in India now. The sub-species Panthera leo persica has been around for over 100,000 years since it split from the African lions, but got severely hunted to near extinction in its range across Asia and Middle East. Luckily, interventions undertaken have helped protect the small surviving population in India’s Gir.

The scenarios are irreversibly changed and it is impossible to hope to revive the past glory of our wildlife. The least we can do is protect the remaining few and encourage co-existence through awareness building and judicious management of habitats. For the sake of protecting the lions from being wiped out and in ensuring a healthy genetic diversity, it is imperative that they are translocated to few other favourable regions. The Asiatic Lion is the pride of a whole nation.

Interestingly, translocation of species between India and Africa dates back to early part of last century when the Maharaja of Gwalior whose request for lions was turned down by Nawab of Junagad turned to Africa and procured African lions! Introduced into the same Kuno, some of these lions turned man-eaters and were captured. A few escaped into the forests and were last seen in the 60s.

Are we still playing kings and nawabs?

By Jaya