In India, a lion conservation success story turns into political issue
Jairam Ramesh, India's environment and wildlife minister, even offered tigers to Gujarat as an incentive to part with its lions, but without any luck.
Many analysts say that Gir's big cats descend from a handful of lions and make up a limited genetic pool. Iran, the only other country with a captive breeding population of Asiatic lions, refused to help India introduce much-needed genetic diversity.
Population spilling over
Meanwhile, Gir can no longer contain its growing numbers of lions.
In the past four years, lions have begun dispersing naturally into newer areas, traveling along streams, grassland and farms. Gujarat's forest officials say this is creating a satellite lion population that would insulate them in the event of an infection. But advocates of translocation say that this does not provide adequate geographical isolation.
Some lions fall into open village wells in the dark and die. Many farmers say that the presence of lions keeps a check on the blue bulls that destroy their crops.
Instances of man-lion conflict are rare.
Inside the Gir sanctuary, there are 375 families of Maldharis, a traditional forest-dwelling community of vegetarian cattle rearers. Their cattle are routinely hunted by the lions.
"We never get angry at the lion. The lion is our king. It is our duty to see that its stomach is full," said Lakshmiben Ulwa, the 54-year-old matriarch of a door-less, mud hamlet.
But that bonhomie may not last.
Two weeks ago, in a rare incident, a sub-adult lion was axed to death by three woodcutters in Mandalpara village, a few miles from the sanctuary. The lion had attacked seven farm laborers.
"As the number of lions rise, they will spill over and conflict with humans will rise. Nobody wants a lion in their back yard," said Ritwick Dutta, the attorney for the translocation advocates in the Supreme Court case. "But Gujarat state wants a monopoly over the lions and does not want to part with even five lions."
During last month's census operation, Gir officials asked for 120 volunteers. They were flooded with 800 applications from people ready to forgo a week of school and office to do their bit for the lions.
Jagrut Rindani, a 31-year-old member of the Asiatic Lion Protection Society, was among the volunteers.
"As a wildlife enthusiast, I understand the concerns about an epidemic hitting our lions. But the lion is Gujarati pride. My heart is saying our lions should not go anywhere, but my mind is saying something else," he said.