After the impressive findings of the latest tiger census, which indicated a robust 30 per cent rise in their population in the past five years, the lion headcount this year has shown an almost equally impressive 27 per cent surge in the number of these big cats in a similar time span. The Gir forest in Gujarat, the only remaining abode of Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica), which have vanished from all other habitats in the subcontinent and neighbouring countries, now has 523 lions, against 411 in 2010. These rare lions, which were put in the "critically endangered" category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2000, were upgraded to the "endangered" class in 2011 in view of the steady increase in their numbers. There are good chances now that they may be taken out of the threatened bracket as cubs of less than three years of age and having a full breeding life ahead of them form a sizable chunk of their current population. Africa is the only other place where lions still exist but their count there has rapidly shrunk over the past decades.
However, the 2015 lion census has thrown up some disquieting trends as well, which merit urgent attention. The most noteworthy among these is that the lion population has reached almost the saturation point in the core area of the Gir national park. Their number is rising mainly in the areas outside the protected zone - thus bringing them close enough to human habitations to cause man-animal conflicts. The Gujarat government has stonewalled all queries, and maintained that locals do not grudge the predation of their cattle by lions. Even if this is true - and it stretches credulity - it is unlikely to remain so if the lion population continues to rise.
The Gujarat government now has to be conscious of the larger picture and do what is best for the survival of the Asiatic lion. The last surviving population of Asiatic lions should no longer be kept in a single habitat in Gir; instead, it should be dispersed to other areas where they used to roam about till the beginning of the 20th century. Restricting them to a solitary locale exposes them to grave risks due to disease epidemics, genetic deformities, forest fires or other unforeseeable calamities. In this context, it is worth recalling that the bulk of the lion population in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park was annihilated in the early 1990s by epidemics, forcing the authorities to look for a second home for them. The Gujarat government, with a focus geared more towards tourism rather than on conservation, has prepared a proposal to open another lion sanctuary close to the present one to ease the pressure on the Gir forest in the Junagarh area. However, that is really not the same thing as providing a wholly new homestead to these lions. Madhya Pradesh has already expressed keenness to provide a safe home for the Asiatic lions in the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary; but Gujarat has refused to part with any lion for this purpose. The Supreme Court's order in 2013 for relocation of some prides to the Kuno park has also remained unimplemented, as Gujarat does not want to lose the distinction of being the lone home for this rare lion species. A fresh appeal is said to have been filed for the reconsideration of the apex court's earlier decree citing some new grounds for opposing the transfer of lions. However, regardless of the final judicial verdict, it would be in the best interests of the Asiatic lions if the Gujarat government relented and allowed these lions to inhabit more than one territory.