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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Despite SC order, no shifting of lions outside Gujarat in Centre’s 25-year plan

To be announced on August 10, World Lion Day, sources in the Environment Ministry and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said that the Project Lion roadmap will instead focus on “assisted natural dispersal across Saurashtra”.

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | New Delhi |
Updated: July 27, 2022 8:28:00 am
The initial proposal of September 2020 under Project Lion identified seven sites, including three each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, for relocation. (Express file photo, representational)

NINE YEARS after the Supreme Court gave it a six-month deadline for shifting lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh, and four years after it assured the apex court that the order would be implemented, the Centre has drafted a 25-year roadmap for Project Lion with no provision for any such translocation.

To be announced on August 10, World Lion Day, sources in the Environment Ministry and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said that the Project Lion roadmap will instead focus on “assisted natural dispersal across Saurashtra” — and potentially to Rajasthan by the time India celebrates 100 years of Independence in 2047.

Satya Prakash Yadav, who led the drafting of the roadmap as additional director general (Forest) in the Environment Ministry and director in Dehradun-based WII, declined to respond to a query from The Indian Express on whether the roadmap would amount to contempt of court.

Shyamal Tikadar, chief wildlife warden of Gujarat, said he would “address queries only after the release” of the plan.

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The initial proposal of September 2020 under Project Lion, which was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 15 that year, identified seven sites, including three each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, for relocation.

By August 2021, records show, Gujarat prepared a fresh 10-year roadmap with a budget of Rs 2,000 crore to populate Barda wildlife sanctuary and a few other areas, with no provision for shifting lions outside the state. This plan has been modified at WII into a 25-year roadmap to facilitate natural dispersal of lions and establish new lion populations within Gujarat.

In a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on Monday, MoS Environment Ashwini Kumar Choubey limited the scope of assessing the suitability of a new habitat for lions to potential sites in Gujarat.

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The 25-year roadmap, say sources, envisages a two-pronged dispersal strategy for the source population in Gir national park across Saurashtra: north-west towards Barda wildlife sanctuary, where a new population will be hemmed in by the sea; and north-east beyond Rajkot, skirting the Rann of Kutch, and following the Banas river potentially into Rajasthan.

“It’s wishful at this stage but we hope that’s how the assisted natural dispersal should happen in the next 10-25 years. The initial challenge is to make the lion cross the Rajkot-Porbandar and Ahmedabad-Rajkot highways by guiding them with feeds to culverts, etc,” said an official privy to the plan.

“Nobody will stop the lions if they want to enter Madhya Pradesh” after they reach Rajasthan, the official said.

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Bhopal-based environmentalist Ajay Dubey, who had filed a contempt petition in the case, said: “It is unprecedented how a time-bound Supreme Court order is undermined for nine years even after an assurance in 2018 based on which my petition was discharged.”

He alleged that another plan to settle cheetahs at the Kuno park in Madhya Pradesh, when there were other available sites, was “only to scuttle the lion plan”. “Now, African cheetahs are being airlifted while our lions are expected to walk all the way to MP via Rajasthan,” he said.

The need for setting up a lion population outside Gujarat as an “insurance” against mass-casualty caused by epidemics or natural calamities was recognised far back in 1993 by WII. Subsequent studies at three potential sites within the historic range of the Asiatic lion identified Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh to be the most suitable for reintroducing the species.

Following the relocation of 24 villages from Kuno and the confirmation of an adequate prey base, the Centre in 2004 wrote to Gujarat for releasing lions. As Gujarat dragged its feet, the issue reached the Supreme Court which, in April 2013, set a six-month deadline and constituted an expert committee for the project.

The apex court’s order said: “The cardinal issue is not whether the Asiatic lion is a ‘family member’ or the pride of a State but the preservation of an endangered species for which we have to apply the species best interest standard.”

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Gujarat filed a review petition, followed by a curative petition, which were dismissed in October 2013 and August 2014, respectively. Then, the state government insisted on completing over 30 studies before translocating lions.

The prolonged delay led to Dubey’s contempt petition which was discharged after the Environment Ministry assured that it would hold a meeting to expedite the project. Nothing moved until the plan to introduce African cheetahs in Kuno was revived in January 2020.

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First published on: 27-07-2022 at 04:38:49 am
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