The recent Supreme Court directive to reintroduce Asiatic lions in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno sanctuary will help give them a second lease of life, feel experts

India was the only country in the world to have five big cat species until recently. While the mile-a-minute cheetah has lost the race to survive in India, the tiger has its back to the wall, the sinewy snow leopard is barely surviving in its Himalayan abode, the Asiatic lion is languishing in its only tiny territory and the nimble leopard is maligned across the nation.

“All this is happening because of heavy human intrusion on the natural habitats which is depleting the graceful felines,” says B.C. Choudhury, wildlife advisor with the Wildlife Trust of India.

At a time when the lion is languishing in its cocooned population at Gir sanctuary, the recent Supreme Court decision to translocate the Asiatic lions has left wildlife lovers excited. The re-introduction of the lions in some parts of their former range has long been deliberated for its lasting survival. Remarking on the reinstatement of Asiatic lions in Kuno Wildlife sanctuary, Dr. Asad Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society, said: “It is a significant development and we welcome the move. Relocating some lions is a wonderful idea for the long-term survival of the species and should have been done much earlier.”

Explaining the rationale, he said that the region where the re-introduction would take place was formerly a part of the natural range of Asiatic lions. Lions are adaptable animals and can withstand varying temperatures of central India. Dr. Rahmani, who is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife, has been quoted in the recent judgment saying that that sporadic presence of tigers in Kuno was in no case detrimental to re-introduction of lions.

Although designated as a National Park, three highways, a railway line and smaller roads crisscross Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat. Temples within the sanctuary is another bane which draw thousands of pilgrims each year “trampling the tranquillity” of the location. If that is not enough, the habitat faces a major forest fire risk.

With the entire wild population of about 400 Asiatic lions restricted to just one area, it is highly susceptible to various kinds of biological or man-made catastrophe. A major disaster can decimate the entire species in one stroke. Comprehending the necessity of providing Asiatic lions with an alternate home has become imperative.

Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh government has claimed that it is adequately equipped with all the necessary infrastructure, expertise and environment for translocation of the lions to Kuno sanctuary. Situated in the State’s Sheopur district, the Kuno Wildlife Division is spread over 1,269 sq km. A section of the Asiatic lions will be translocated here which includes 344.68 sq km of Kuno Wildlie sanctuary. As Kuno has luxuriant grass with mixed forest, it supports all major prey species like chital, chinkara, sambar, nilgai and wild boars. The overall prey density is about 50 animals per sq km which is bounteous to meet the food needs of the about-to-be-introduced pride of lions from Gir.

Dr. Faiyaz A. Khudsar, the lead scientist at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi who has worked for five years at Kuno, said: “The serpentine Kuno River flows from north to south splitting the entire sanctuary, thus providing a thirst quenching lifeline for thriving flora and fauna on both its banks. Over the years, all 24 villages from within the sanctuary were relocated and rehabilitated outside the sanctuary. Facilities such as roads, drinking water, electricity, irrigation, schools, fruit orchards, etc. were provided to the displaced villagers.”

The judgement has given hope to wildlife experts in Rajasthan as a similar proposal in April 2009 to introduce the Asiatic lion in Kumbhalgarh, a historical site adjacent to the declared National Park of the same name was made. The wide enclosure of Kumbhalgarh Fort has structures of archaeological value and can also play host to Asiatic lions. The innovative proposal suggests that the wall will ensure the safety of lions in the protected area with support services like water holes, feral cattle and ungulates as prey food. Lion safaris can be organised to make the project self-sustaining and provide employment opportunities to the locals as an additional attraction, thereby increasing tourists and revenues.

Kamlesh Adhiya, founder president of Asiatic Lion Protection Society in Gujarat, said: “We should respect the judgment of the Supreme Court and not get into controversies. Instead we should all strive to complete the complex process of translocation as India has the technical know-how of moving animals safely.”