ON WEDNESDAY, when the Supreme Court said that the death of 23 lions in three weeks in Gir was “very serious,” the Additional Solicitor General assured the court that he would “find out” details of the deaths. And added that a matter related to lions was already pending in the court. What was left unsaid was the fact that more than five years ago, the Supreme Court, in a prescient order, had called for shifting some lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh to set up a second home for the endangered species “to save it from extinction, due to catastrophes like epidemic” etc.
But a series of objections raised by Gujarat and foot-dragging by both Environment Ministry and Madhya Pradesh Forest Department ensured that hasn’t happened. Asiatic lions are now found only in Gujarat where their population jumped from 411 in 2010 to 523 in 2015.
Crammed for space, a number of prides have ventured out of forests and occupied areas as far as in coastal Gujarat. In many areas, they opportunistically scavenge for food and share space with feral dogs blamed for spreading Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) to African lions that killed nearly half the population in the mid-1990s.
Indeed, scientists at Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Virology (NIV) have officially confirmed presence of CDV in at least four samples that were tested. For over two and a half decades, experts have been warning against “having all the eggs in one basket” in India.
“Irrespective of the number of eggs, you will lose all if you drop the basket. A second home for lions outside Gujarat is a must insurance for the species. It’s over five years now that the state is getting away with violating a Supreme Court order,” said Ravi Chellam, biologist and member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee on the matter.
Constituting the expert committee in April 2013, the Supreme Court had set a six-month deadline for shifting lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh. A prolonged delay led to a contempt petition which was discharged by the apex court in March 2018 after the Environment ministry assured that it would hold a meeting to expedite the project. It’s been another six months since.
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 the Wildlife Institute of India (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 adequate prey base by the WII, the Centre in 2004 wrote to Gujarat for releasing lions. As Gujarat dragged its feet, the issue reached the Supreme Court which in its 2013 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’.”
Even as the expert committee held its first meeting, Gujarat filed a review petition which was dismissed in October 2013. The state went ahead with a curative petition which was also rejected by the Supreme Court in August 2014. After exhausting its legal options, Gujarat insisted on completing over 30 studies as per the relocation guideline of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) before releasing lions. While the IUCN recommends the studies, these are not mandatory pre-conditions for relocation.
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In fact, records show all members of the expert committee, except the representative of the Gujarat forest department, held that certain studies could continue in parallel to the process of translocation of lions. But Gujarat refused to budge. The Environment ministry also got cold feet. At its sixth meeting on December 19, 2016, the SC-appointed expert committee observed that Kuno was ready to receive lions, asked Madhya Pradesh to notify the sanctuary as a national park with additional areas, and told the WII to put in place the details of a MoU among the centre and the two states concerned.
In June 2017, the WII prepared the draft for the MoU but it is yet to be signed. In November 2017, the notice for the seventh meeting of the expert committee was circulated by the Environment ministry. It was then cancelled and never held again. Madhya Pradesh, on its part, delayed notifying Kuno as a national park. “We are in the process of finalising the notification. Lions are our priority for Kuno. Only last month, we had a meeting with the Gujarat state committee. They insisted on a number of studies before the relocation. The WII is trying to resolve that issue,” said Manoj Kumar Sapra, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Madhya Pradesh.
The top officials of the Environment ministry could not be contacted. “We are hopeful that the lion project will materialise soon. Finding faults or blaming the parties for the delay may not be the right approach if we want to make progress,” said a senior official who claimed he was not authorised to speak to the media. A K Saxena, Gujarat’s chief wildlife warden, and D T Vasavada, Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife), Junagadh, declined to comment.