Published: July 20, 2012
Within the confines of this dry forest in Gujarat state, the lions have been rescued from near-extinction. A century ago, fewer than 50 remained. Today more than 400 fill the park and sometimes wander into surrounding villages and farmland.
But the lions' precarious return is in jeopardy. Experts warn their growing numbers could be their undoing. Crowded together, they are more vulnerable to disease and natural disaster. There is little new territory for young males to claim, increasing chances for inbreeding, territorial conflict or males killing the young.
Conservationists agree these lions need a second home fast, and far from Gir. Government-backed experts in the 1990s settled on a rugged and hilly sanctuary called Kuno, where lions historically roamed with tigers, in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh. Millions were spent preparing the park. But Gujarat rejected the plan. And no lions were sent.
Now, the uncertain fate of the Asiatic lions — once dominant in forests from Morocco and Greece across the Middle East to eastern India — rests in the hands of bureaucrats, and the case has reached the Supreme Court.
"We are the only ones who have lions. We have managed without interference until now," said Gujarat's environment secretary, S.K. Nanda. "Can we humans be arbiters of where these lions should live? Should we move the mountains and the rivers, too? If the lions want to move, let them move on their own."
The Asiatic lions, a subspecies, are nearly as large as their African cousins, though the males' manes are less fluffy and their tails have larger tufts.
By the 20th century, they had nearly been wiped out by trophy hunters. The last Asiatic lion outside Gujarat was gunned down in Iran in 1942.
Within India, hundreds of thousands of lions, tigers, leopards and wolves were killed over decades of frenzied hunting, encouraged by British colonials. Three years after independence, the country's Asiatic cheetahs were extinct.
But the lions in Gujarat got a reprieve. A princely ruler banned hunting of the few dozen lions left in 1901.
The state created Gir Sanctuary over more than 540 square miles, relocating all but a few hundred buffalo herdsmen who lived peaceably with the predators.
The sanctuary became a model in conservation, with constant patrols against poachers and cultivated grasslands for the lions' prey: spotted deer and blue-hued antelope. A veterinary hospital was built. The lions thrived.
Tourists from India's newly minted middle class now flock to the park, riding open-topped jeeps to see lions lazing under trees or teaching their butterfly-chasing young to stalk small prey.
A few dozen trackers keep count of the animals and fill artificial water holes.
"Not everyone gets a job like this," said Raju Vajadiya, idly swinging a stick, the only defense he and his colleagues usually have or need.
Evidence suggests the gene pool is dangerously shallow, meaning a disease that affects one Gir lion could quickly affect many. Tanzania's Serengeti National Park saw a third of its 3,000 lions wiped out in 1994 by canine distemper.
But Gujarat denies any need to move lions from the state. It dismisses the idea that disease or calamity could pose a threat. To give the lions more space, Gujarat recently opened a second sanctuary on its coast. Conservationists say the two populations are still too close together.
To address gene pool concerns, Gujarat is breeding them in a zoo, but conservationists say it's ridiculous to think those could be a substitute for lions raised in the wild.
The central government and Madhya Pradesh state already have prepared the second lion home in Kuno, relocating villages and hiring specialists to build up a prey base for the cats. In 2006, Faiyaz Khusdar, an ecologist on the project, filed a lawsuit challenging how such a plan could be enacted but no lions ever were sent.
The Supreme Court is now deliberating on the messy dispute and could — if it wants — resolve it within weeks.
"India risks becoming a champion of extinction," said Khusdar. "People would never forgive us if we lose these beautiful cats."