The last lions of Asia found in Gir have been nurtured with great care by Gujarat. The protective hand of the government and people there enables an estimated 400 members of Panthera leo persica to survive today, overcoming a variety of challenges. This is an achievement that the State can be justifiably proud of. It is now time for Gujarat to build on its success and help improve the long-term survival prospects of these magnificent animals. Rather than stand on prestige, it must wholeheartedly accept the Supreme Court’s decision directing that lions be translocated to create a second population in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh. Providing new habitat for the cats is important for several reasons. There is scientific consensus, for one, that Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and its surrounding areas cannot support many more lions. More significantly, the existing isolated population could face annihilation in the event of a disease outbreak, or a natural disaster. These key questions were considered by experts at the Wildlife Institute of India and elsewhere two decades ago, before arriving at the conclusion that Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, among three locations, is best suited for translocation. Gujarat can easily identify a pride of five to eight lions to be moved, since they are now found even outside the protected area of Gir.

The fundamental test that the plan must satisfy is scientific. Happily, conservation science has matured considerably since a failed attempt was made over five decades ago to create a second home for lions in Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh. The one significant issue to be addressed in Kuno is that of poaching. A reduction in the major prey base including large animals such as nilgai and spotted deer due to hunting automatically depresses big cat populations. The Madhya Pradesh government, which has spent large sums to relocate villagers and prepare the sanctuary for lions, should curb poaching effectively. Together with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, it must also double the protected area to 700 sq km and upgrade it to National Park status for viability. For Gujarat, there is much to gain from the rise of a second population. After all, the species is now emblematic of its home and commonly referred to as the ‘Gir lion,’ even if it comes to exist at a new location. Historically, Asiatic lions were free-ranging over a large area that included parts of central India and much of the northwest, and thrived in climates as varied as hot desert in Palestine and cold forests in Iran. As an experiment in species survival, the Kuno project must be actively pursued by Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and the Centre.

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