Lions are unique in being the only social cats. The lions in Gir are special as they are mainly forest-dwelling and subsisting on deer unlike their African cousins. I spent more than four years studying the lions for my PhD, from December 1985 to March 1990, and since then have retained an abiding interest in the ecology and conservation of these lions.
The government of Gujarat and the citizens of the state, especially in Saurashtra deserve whole-hearted appreciation and support for their conservation efforts, which have led to a significant increase in the number of Asiatic lions. The scale of this achievement can be fully recognised only when we compare the current population of lions in Gir with estimates in the late 1800s and early 1900s which put the number as low as 20 to 50 lions. While we may quibble over the veracity of these estimates (including the current ones), what cannot be challenged is that the lions in Gir had a close brush with extinction due to their very low population, and with the increase in numbers their conservation status has improved.
Despite the conservation prospects vastly improving for the lions in Gir, this population constitutes the only remaining wild Asiatic lions. It is akin to having all your eggs in one basket. Lions, in the current situation, face the risk of extinction from a whole host of threats. If any of these threats were to actualise, it will have catastrophic consequences and result in the complete erosion of the conservation gains of more than a century. Science and prudence demand that at least one more free-ranging population of lions be established by translocating eight lions from Gir and reintroducing them in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in western Madhya Pradesh.
I see the translocation and establishment of another free-ranging population of lions as buying insurance against extinction of wild and free-ranging lions in Asia. Irrespective of the size of the population of lions in Gir, the fact that Gir and its surroundings are the only place where wild lions occur in Asia, is enough justification for the translocation. It does not matter whether you have a dozen eggs or one hundred eggs in your basket. If the basket falls all the eggs are bound to break.
As I have already acknowledged, the proposed translocation is no reflection on the quality of care and management that the state government and the citizens have bestowed on the lions over the last several decades. We do not buy life insurance for ourselves and our family members expecting that we will all die shortly. Similarly why should we not take all precautions to guard against the conservation threats that a single population is inherently bound to face? The argument that no such event has occurred in the last century is to tempt fate.
There is a major problem in the thinking and policy making related to wildlife conservation in India. The focus is invariably on the fate of individual animals, when the inescapable reality is that all animals are born to die. It is the timing and the circumstances of death that should be of concern rather than the fact that animals have died. The focus of conservation action should be to ensure, (a) persistence of populations of wildlife, (b) quality, integrity and contiguity of wildlife habitats, and (c) mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts. I expect far more effective conservation if this line of thinking is properly understood and guides conservation planning in India.
The government of Gujarat and popular sentiment in the state have been opposing the idea of translocating lions outside the state. A whole host of objections have been voiced, including the state’s response to a PIL in the Supreme Court. I do not want to use this space to refute these objections, not because they cannot be refuted, but because I think there is a need for us to fundamentally re-engage Gujarat in this dialogue. I strongly believe that almost all of their objections come from a flawed understanding of the objectives of the proposed translocation and an incomplete understanding of the scientific principles governing the management of endangered species. The Government of India and Government of Madhya Pradesh should proactively engage Gujarat in this conservation initiative.
By keeping the conservation of Asiatic lions as the focused objective, and adopting a generous and cooperative attitude, I am hopeful that the two state governments and the Centre can work out an innovative set of solutions to break the current logjam. I am confident that the lion’s roar will soon resound through vast tracts of forests which were once part of its former distribution range in central India.
The writer is country director, Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme