Nine years ago, the Supreme Court ordered the translocation of Asiatic lions from Gujarat to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh within six months. In the same order, it shot down a proposal to introduce the African cheetah in Kuno.
While the lion translocation remains on paper, the reverse is set to come true in a few weeks from now, when African cheetahs are moved to Kuno. This week, the Centre told Parliament that a committee has been set up to consider translocating the Asiatic lion from the Gir area to other regions within Gujarat, making no mention of the Supreme Court order directing that some of the big cats be moved out of the state to create a second, isolated population.
Since a 1993 workshop first proposed the translocation, the one factor holding up the transfer of lions to outside the state has been the Gujarat government’s stand. This steadfast opposition by Gujarat was specified in detail in the judgment by the Supreme Court in April 2013, directing that the lions be moved to Kuno “within six months”.
The 1993 workshop, organised jointly by the Gujarat Forest Department, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and others, on the Asiatic lion population and habitat analysis, first recommended a second home for lions. Experts pointed out that the sub-population of Asiatic lions was limited to the Gir area only and therefore the entire species was vulnerable to extinction in event of an epidemic or other natural calamities. Hence, they suggested a second population of free-ranging lions by translocating some to a place geographically isolated from Gir as an “insurance” against such threats.
The workshop suggested Darrah-Jawaharsagar and Sitamata wildlife sanctuaries in Rajasthan, and Kuno in MP as potential sites for lion translocation. Accordingly, the WII, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), conducted a field survey of the three sites and ruled that Kuno was the most suitable.
In 1995, the Centre for Environment Law and WWF-India filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, demanding translocation of the lions even as the then Congress-led Madhya Pradesh government proposed rehabilitation of 1,545 families living in and around Kuno to make it ready to host lions.
In 1996, the MP government sought the Congress-led Centre’s approval, and in 2000, the latter cleared diversion of 3,395 hectares of reserve forest land elsewhere in MP for rehabilitating Kuno residents. It also formed a monitoring committee for implementation of the ‘Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project at Kuno’.
But when the committee met in 2004 to discuss the WII survey report on Kuno, the Gujarat Chief Wildlife Warden “opined that there was no commitment on the part of the State of Gujarat for providing lions and the State Government had not agreed for the same”.
The meeting thus concluded with a decision that the Minister of State for MoEF would write to the Chief Minister of Gujarat – at the time Narendra Modi – “highlighting the project justification, with a request to provide lions for translocation to Kuno Palpur Sanctuary”.
After the MP government again got Kuno’s prey base assessed in July 2006, in collaboration with the WII, the then MoEF Minister wrote to Modi for translocation of two lions to Kuno. The CM replied that he had placed the matter before the department concerned for “further view”.
In March-April 2007, even as Gujarat was under pressure over the translocation issue, eight lions were poached in Gir by a gang including members from MP. In response, the Modi government in the state announced a Rs 40-crore five-year action plan for lion conservation.
A couple of months later, in August 2007, then environment and forest minister of Gujarat “indicated that it was not possible for the state government to agree to the proposal for creation of a second home at Kuno… for Asiatic lions”.
In November 2008, the Supreme Court directed that the proposal of translocation be sent to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and that the Board hear both Gujarat and MP. At the meeting of the Standing Committee of the NBWL, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Gujarat informed the Board about steps the state government was taking to protect lions and their habitats. It also argued that Kuno was home to six to eight tigers and that co-existence of large cats of almost equal size was unlikely. The Gujarat official said that lions prefer habitats with temperatures below 42 degrees Celsius, and that in Kuno, these exceeded 45 degrees for a number of days a year.
The official also claimed that lions were already dispersing to Amreli and Bhavnagar areas within Gujarat and the state government was preparing Barda Wildlife Sanctuary in Porbandar as a home too, by introducing spotted deer. Lions have established meta populations in different places in the Gir region, which are isolated, receiving genetic input from the base population in Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, the official said.
Gujarat’s stand was countered by experts like Asad Rehmani, then director of the Bombay Natural History Society. Sporadic presence of tigers was not detrimental to lion reintroduction in Kuno, they held.
But again, in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in April 2009, Gujarat objected to the translocation. This time, it argued that Kuno did not have a sufficient prey base, and questioned the WII’s methodology in holding it adequate to accommodate lions. It said that lion translocation attempts in the early 20th century and in 1956 in the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh had failed.
The Supreme Court then directed the NBWL to have a fresh look at the subject and hear both states, if necessary. At a meeting in July 2009, the NBWL Standing Committee decided to have an in-house technical discussion on the subject. At the discussion in September that year, where Gujarat’s Principal Secretary (Forests) and Chief Wildlife Warden were present, experts noted that lions were known to survive in varied climates, and that earlier translocation attempts had failed as lions were hunted after they became cattle-lifters.
In November 2010, Gujarat filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, again highlighting “the insufficiency of the prey base at Kuno and the presence of tigers in the occupied area at Kuno”. “Further, it was also pointed out that the current Asiatic lion population is not a single population confined to one place but consists of meta-populations spread over several locations within the Greater Gir Region.”
Arguing for the lions to be kept in Gujarat, the Modi government said that “good conservation practices and intensive wildlife health care” had led to an epidemic-free regime over generations”. It further contended: “State of Gujarat has also raised various other objections stating that the past track record would indicate that State of Madhya Pradesh is not taking any effective steps to control poaching, which is also a threat if lions are translocated to Kuno.” However, MP countered the claim by submitting that the Tiger Authority of India had in July 2011 assessed MP’s performance as outstanding, indicating the state had taken “effective steps against poaching of animals at Kuno”.
Another contention by Gujarat was that while the NBWL was seized of the matter, the issue was never placed before Gujarat’s State Board for Wildlife (SBWL), and that such matters require its consent.
Therefore, in February 2012, the SC directed the SBWL to consider the lion translocation issue and submit a report.
Accordingly, the SBWL held a meeting in March 2012. As per the Supreme Court order, its report said: “… there was no threat to Asiatic Lion in the Gir forest from epidemic diseases or other such factors. It was pointed out that the present Asiatic lion population has risen from a broad-based and a reasonably good population has been achieved.” In conclusion, “there is no necessity of finding a second home for the Asiatic lion at Kuno”.
In this report, the Gujarat government also referred to the lions as its family. “… the issue of giving or not giving lions to Kuno is not an issue of conflict between states, but it is a collective Indian cultural approach in the interest of long-term conservation of lions as part of our family. SBWL further maintained the stand that Asiatic Lion being a ‘family member’ is beyond and higher than the ‘scientific reasoning’.”
The SBWL said that it, “therefore, did not agree with the proposal for translocation of lions from Gujarat to Kuno”.
In its April 15, 2013, judgment, the Bench of Justices K S Radhakrishnan and Chandramauli Prasad, while rejecting Gujarat’s argument, observed: “… State of Gujarat can be justifiably proud of the fact that it has preserved an endangered species becoming extinct. We are, however, concerned with a fundamental issue whether the Asiatic lions should have a second home. The cardinal issue is not whether the Asiatic lion is a ‘family member’ or is part of the ‘Indian culture and civilization’, or the pride of a State, but the preservation of an endangered species for which we have to apply the ‘species best interest standard’.”
The Court advocated an “eco-centric” view in the matter, “not human-centric or family-centric”. “Scientific reasoning for its (lion) re-location has to supersede the family bond or pride of the people and we have to look at the species best interest, especially in a situation where the specie is found to be a critically endangered one and the necessity of a second home has been keenly felt.”
It went on to order the translocation of lions to Kuno within six months “to save it from extinction, due to catastrophes like epidemic, large forest fire etc”.
The Court also directed the MoEF to constitute an expert committee consisting of senior officials, chief wildlife wardens of Gujarat and MP, and technical experts, WII scientist Prof Yadvendradev Jhala, wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Ravi Chellam etc.
Accordingly, the Centre formed a committee, which met six times, the last time as far back as December 2016. By 2014, Modi had become the Prime Minister.
At the committee meetings, Gujarat kept insisting that more than two dozen studies recommended by the IUCN (a body called the International Union for Conservation of Nature) for such translocation projects be conducted in Kuno before lions are translocated. Sources say other committee members said the necessary studies had been conducted and that all studies recommended by the IUCN were not a precondition for translocation.
Talking about the submission by the Centre in Parliament now, Chellam told The Indian Express: “When the Minister of State, MoEFCC, in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha (whether it is a fact the Government has been trying to translocate Asiatic lions to different parts of the country), does not even mention the 2013 Supreme Court Order or the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee, or all the work that has been done in Kuno since 1995 in preparation for translocating lions, what else can I say?”
Chellam also said that the scheduled introduction of cheetahs in Kuno will further delay translocation of lions by at least 10 more years.