The western Indian state of Gujarat holds the last remaining wild population of Asiatic lions in the world.
The 674 lions - up from 523 in 2015 - live within an overall range of 30,000 sq kms across the Saurashtra region, of which around 250 sq kms are legally protected as the Gir National Park, and around 1150 sq kms as the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary.
In June 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted about the increase in the population of lions. “Kudos to the people of Gujarat and all those whose efforts have led to this excellent feat,” he said.
However, 92 lions died between January and May this year, according to a Down to Earth report.
The Gujarat Forest Department has been criticised in the past for its reluctance to discuss possible infections among the state’s lions.
An unnamed official of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) told Down to Earth that the cause of some of the deaths in 2020 was the canine distemper virus (CDV), a highly contagious disease that can manifest in the respiratory and nervous systems and can be fatal.
Gujarat forest minister Vasava said that there were 34 CDV-related lion deaths in 2017-’18. A National Institute of Virology study in 2018, conducted after 27 lions died as a result of the virus across two months, detected CDV in 68 Gir lions.
In India, domestic dogs are the main reservoirs of CDV and the virus can jump from dogs to lions owing to the exchange of bodily fluids in instances like the animals feeding on the same carcass. The spread within lion populations is enabled by the fact that lions are social animals.
A CDV outbreak in 1994 in Tanzania’s Serengeti killed about 1,000 lions, a third of the national park’s population.
Apart from an outbreak, inbreeding - which is high among Gir’s lions, which makes them susceptible to disease, and natural disasters threaten the last wild population of the Asiatic lion. “Any species in a single population is vulnerable to extinction….this is a basic principle in Conservation Biology,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, a wildlife scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
This is the kind of scenario that India’s Supreme Court (SC) took into consideration on April 15, 2013 when it ordered the translocation of some of the lions from Gir National Park in Gujarat to Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The MoEFCC was asked to complete the translocation within six months of the date of the order.
The judgement held that translocation to Madhya Pradesh is, “of utmost importance so as to preserve the Asiatic lion, an endangered species which cannot be delayed.”
In 2013, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. A Times of India report from the time describes Modi as being “stung” by the SC verdict and says that he ordered a, “strong review petition to be filed before the apex court to prevent the transfer of the first lot of lions…. Also, he found the idea of Gujarat sending lions regularly to Madhya Pradesh objectionable.” Gujarat government filed review as well as curative petitions, which were rejected by the Supreme Court, thus exhausting all legal options before the state.
Seven years later, MoEFCC - now reporting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi - is yet to comply with the SC order.
Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, has been in a bind: a year after the SC verdict, Modi was elected Prime Minister. Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who belongs to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), began a studied silence on the translocation of lions.
A year-and-a-half into Modi’s elevation, Chouhan’s government seemed to have lost all hope in getting the lions and considered shifting zoo-bred lions to Kuno. Two years later, it considered making Kuno a tiger habitat. Even as it waited, Madhya Pradesh never initiated contempt of court proceedings against the MoEFCC and Gujarat for failing to abide by the top court’s order.
Madhya Pradesh finally spoke out when the BJP’s 15-year stint of being in power in the state ended. Soon after taking over as Chief Minister in December 2018, Congress party’s Kamal Nath wrote to PM Modi. “All recommendations made by the Wildlife Institute of India and expert committee formed to oversee the translocation of Asiatic lions to Kuno, like habitat improvement, prey base augmentation, relocation of 24 villages (1543 families) etc have been completed by the state government,” he said in a February 2019 letter.
Madhya Pradesh’s forest minister Umang Singhar raised the issue in a session of the legislative assembly in July 2019. Gujarat’s forest minister Vasava responded by saying that his government was studying the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) guidelines on lion translocations.
In March this year, the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh fell; the BJP, lead by Chouhan, is back in power.
Then-Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had invoked an electoral campaign slogan of Modi to predict in 2009 that Gujarat would never part with its lions. Gujarati Asmita (pride), said Ramesh: "I wrote to Chief Minister Narendra Modi twice but the state has refused to part with its lions."
Chief Minister Modi, who reportedly told Ramesh that, “Lions are the pride of Gujarat” and “We will not give our lions to anyone,” has avoided talking about the translocation plan since taking over as Prime Minister.
Modi inherited the linkage between lion symbolism, politics and Gujarati pride: as far back as 1997, his one-time mentor and former Gujarat CM Shankersinh Vaghela was against translocating Gujarat’s lions. Vaghela also made the lion his short-lived political party’s symbol.
In 2015, the National Board for Wildlife discussed the proposal of replacing tiger with lion as the national animal of India. This was after a Member of Parliament who hails from Gujarat, where the Asiatic lion is the state animal, raised the idea. The lion was India’s national animal from 1952 to 1972, when it was replaced with the tiger primarily since the former has not been spotted outside Saurashtra in Gujarat since the 1890s.
In 2018, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, said that, “lions are safe in Gujarat and there is no need for their translocation.”
In 2019, Social Action for Forest and Environment (SAFE), a non-governmental organization that works on environmental issues, approached the SC seeking compliance of the court’s 2013 translocation order. The MoEFCC is yet to file a reply to the SC’s notice seeking a response.
India’s National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-’16 stated that for a “highly endangered species” like the Asiatic lion, “alternative homes are imperative.” The 2017-’31 National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP), published in October 2017, removed references to the Asiatic lion as an endangered species.
“The lion was downgraded from an animal that needs high conservation priority in terms of finding it a second home. This seems to be motivated by a reluctance to comply with the SC order,” said Ritwick Dutta, an advocate who specialises in environmental law.
The SC judgment in 2013 that called for reintroduction was passed “after the Court was satisfied that lions could be moved into Kuno,” Dutta said.
Gujarat reportedly insists on holding around 30 studies recommended by the IUCN before transferring the lions. It has rejected suggestions that the studies can be conducted after the translocation. “The Gujarat government keeps quoting and taking refuge in IUCN guidelines [for translocation] as a delaying tactic rather than from a perspective of showing intent to facilitate and ensure that translocation happens,” said Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist who has been studying with Gir lions since 1985.
Chellam and Jhala are also members of an expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court to facilitate the translocation. “The action plan [for reintroduction] has been developed and submitted to the [environment] ministry… only implementation is pending” Jhala said.
“Baseline studies were conducted to assess the suitability of Kuno as a viable habitat for reintroduction of Asiatic lions and the results informed the decision to choose Kuno,” Chellam said.
“We know that the habitat in Kuno is better than Gir, we know that the prey base is better than Gir, we know that the area is larger than Gir… if you put lions in Kuno, they will thrive there,” Jhala explained. Kuno National Park is spread over 750 sq km while Gir National Park covers 250 sq km.
Independent India saw only one other lion translocation project: in 1956, when three lions were trapped in Gir and moved to the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The population of lions in the sanctuary grew to 11 in 1965, after which they went missing without explanation.
There are also other examples of local politics and region-centric attitudes driving conservation narratives across India. Jhala said that according to a study by WII, Kachchh in Gujarat was found to be an ideal site for setting up a breeding centre for the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard. However, the North Indian Rajasthan state’s State Board for Wildlife refused to part with Bustard eggs between 2016-’17, citing Gujarat’s stand on lion translocation. The northeastern Assam state routinely refused to part with its rhinos in the 1990s for establishing new populations.
The 2013 SC judgement had also held that “No state, organisation or person can claim ownership or possession over wild animals in the forest.”
“Asiatic lions are a global heritage and they should not be held hostage to local politics,” Jhala said. “Where is the nationalistic spirit?”
Follow Rishika Pardikar on Twitter.