But says no to translocation of Namibian cheetahs to India
The pride of Gujarat will have to be shared with Madhya Pradesh this year, with the Supreme Court ruling that some of the Asiatic lions currently found only in the famed Gir sanctuary must be shifted to Madhya Pradesh within six months.
However, the Centre’s dreams of bringing another big cat to India — the extinct cheetah — have been further deflated, with the apex court slamming any attempt to import African cheetahs.
On Monday, a two-man bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and C.K. Prasad ruled that the Asiatic lion needs a second home. “We are of the view that the various decisions taken by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) that the Asiatic Lion should have a second home to save it from extinction due to catastrophes like epidemic, large forest fire etc., which could result in extinction, is justified,” it said. “The MoEF is, therefore, directed to take urgent steps for re-introduction of Asiatic Lion from Gir forests to Kuno [sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh].”
However, the two State governments have been in a tug of war for several years. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi claimed Gujarati asmita (pride) is in its lions, which could not be shared with any other State. Even an offer to translocate tigers to Gujarat in return could not move him. Gujarat claimed that Madhya Pradesh had been unable to protect its own tigers in the Panna reserve, and could not be trusted to host the lion as well.
Welcoming the ruling, wildlife experts pointed out that it is vital to safeguard the long-term future of the king of beasts in India. “Besides having all our eggs in one basket, Gujarat’s lions come from a very narrow genetic base of about 25 animals at the turn of the last century, and that makes them a very vulnerable population,” said National Board of Wildlife member Prerna Singh Bindra. “In case there is an epidemic, they could even be wiped out, and hence it’s important that they have a second home.” She added that the lion population has already reached saturation point at Gir and are spilling out of the sanctuary into unprotected, human-dominated areas.
M.K. Ranjitsinh, Wildlife Trust of India chairman, also welcomed the court’s interventions. “I had helped set up the Kuno sanctuary when I was [Madhya Pradesh] forests secretary, so it is a dream fulfilled that lions will be introduced there,” he said.
However, Mr. Ranjitsinh was also a key instigator of the project — backed by the then-Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2010 — to bring African cheetahs into India, after the native cheetah went extinct over 60 years ago. The Supreme Court bench said the introduction of African cheetahs in India from Namibia cannot be allowed, as no detailed scientific study has been conducted and it “is arbitrary and illegal and clear violation of the statutory requirements provided under the Wildlife Protection Act.” Mr. Ranjitsinh declined comment until the court’s full order is made available.
Several conservationists have opposed the plan, which has not been approved by the Standing Committee of the NBWL. “Where are the habitats? We are already bitterly fighting to conserve habitats for the national animal, the tiger, and the national heritage animal, the elephant,” said Ms. Bindra. “Do we really have the commitment to bring in another large carnivore? Will that commitment — both on the part of the government and the people — sustain itself in the light of the harsh reality of inevitable habitat depletion and the human-animal conflicts that will arise?” she questioned.
She pointed out that while Rs. 300 crore have been earmarked for the ambitious cheetah dream, Project Elephant was only allocated Rs. 18 crore last year. “Of course, all of us would love to see the cheetah back in India, but I feel that we need to put our scarce resources into conserving our endangered species, instead of investing in a venture with an uncertain outcome,” she said.