Sources in the ministry of environment and forests said the Union government is likely to present a fresh stand before the Supreme Court in response to a PIL filed against the relocation of a batch of lions to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
How the Centre nuances its response before the court remains to be seen, particularly since the environment ministry, under previous regimes, was involved in conceptualizing and facilitating the relocation project.
The PIL, filed by Rajkot-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Trust, is the third legal challenge mounted against the Supreme Court judgment of April 15, 2013, in which the court had pronounced that the lion relocation plan was in the best interest of the species. "No state, organization or person can claim ownership or possession over wild animals," the court had observed.
Gujarat government, whose subsequent petitions against the judgment were dismissed by the court, has exhausted its legal options in the case. The PIL, therefore, could well be the last legal challenge against the SC's verdict.
It is learnt that ministry officials, under guidance from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), are preparing their response which may factor in the 'sensitivities' involved in translocating the big cats from Gir in Gujarat, the only place where free-roaming Asiatic lions are found.
TOI's formal queries to the ministry on the issue went unanswered. Officials said since the matter was in the court, the ministry would not like to comment on the issue.
"The Union environment ministry took a position in court. How can it go back on it?" asks wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, an expert on Gir lions and one of the moving forces behind the relocation project.
"The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, did not stay its order while admitting the various challenges against its judgment," says Chellam. "So, the court's ruling of April 15, 2013, stands. It's high time the order is implemented."
In the judgment, the court had asked for an expert committee to be formed to prepare an action plan for the translocation. The 12-member committee comprised wildlife experts and officials, including the chief wildlife wardens of Gujarat and MP.
After accounting for comments and objections from members, particularly the official from Gujarat, the committee submitted a 56-page draft action plan to the ministry in April this year. It laid out a detailed plan on which Gir lions should be captured and how the animals should be "soft-released" in Kuno. It proposed that eight to 10 lions, including five to seven females and their cubs, be translocated.
The plan has been pending approval since April.
The lion translocation plan was mooted in 1993 as experts felt that Asiatic lions, restricted to Gir, were vulnerable to epidemics and natural disasters — events such as the floods that hit the region a little more than a month ago and killed at least 13 of the big cats. "A second home away from Gir is like an insurance policy for the lions' survival," says Chellam.
Gujarat, where lions are often linked with Gujarati pride, has been bitterly opposing the plan. Ajay Dubey, a Bhopal-based RTI activist who filed a contempt petition last year seeking implementation of SC's order on lion relocation, alleges that the Centre's likely change in stance on the issue was linked to Narendra Modi's elevation as prime minister.
"Rs 400 crore of public money has been spent since 1993 on developing Kuno as a prime lion habitat. Who will account for that?" he asks.
Meanwhile, no date of hearing has been fixed in the PIL filed by Wildlife Conservation Trust against the relocation. "The court had asked six parties to file their replies to our petition. Only Gujarat government has responded. The replies of the others, including the Centre, is awaited," said WCT's counsel T Gokani.