The story of lion conservation in India has come a long way since the nawab of Junagadh got a rude shock at the turn of the 20th century. Alarmed at finding only 12 of the species left in the Gir grasslands, he banned lion hunting and ensured the animals were protected. The census of 2015 reveals there are 523 lions spread over an area of 22,000 square km. In 2010, a survey conducted over 10,000 sq km had found 411 lions. The lions of Gir are thriving, but greater numbers bring with them new vulnerabilities.
The biggest challenge is to sustain the growing population as it spills out of protected areas. The Asiatic lion now ranges across vast swathes of the Saurashtra region, dotted with human settlements, criss-crossed by highways and railways. This brings with it the threat of speeding trucks and trains, open wells and live wires. It also means an alarming rise in human-animal conflict. Records from May 2014 show that, over the last two years, there had been 125 such incidents outside the protected area, killing 14 people and injuring 117. If local people are to be invested in the survival of the Asiatic lion, the government must work towards twinning their interests with those of conservation.
An alternative long suggested is relocating some of Gujarat’s lions to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur sanctuary. Several objections have been raised — there are insufficient numbers to form two distinct populations, introducing lions in tiger territory would be hazardous, the space in Kuno had been vacated through displacing local villages in the first place. But the main factor holding up the plan seems to be a political tug of war between MP and Gujarat, with the latter making the “pride of Gujarat” a prestige issue. Unless genuine concerns about conservation and welfare militate against the move, there is no reason that the last wild population of Asiatic lions should be threatened by a war between short-sighted CMs.