The recent census of Asiatic lions in Gujarat shows a 27% increase in their population from 411 in 2010 to 523 this year...
The lion population has been consistently growing during since the 1970s, when the lion conservation programme was initiated. The conservation story in Gujarat is one of the best in the world. So far, lions have co-existed with humans in Gujarat but a sudden growth in population could give rise to a man-animal conflict.
Does this rise in the lion population not necessitate the need for a second home for them, especially since the population is growing even outside the core area? What will happen in case of an epidemic? In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government to shift some lions from here to Kuno national park in Madhya Pradesh, seen by many as the new home for the Asiatic lion...
Let me try and answer your questions in two parts. The population of lions in the core area (Gir National Park, Gir sanctuary and Paniya sanctuary) has reached a point of stabilization. In 1990, the core population was 267 and satellite population was 17. This has gone up to 315 (core population) and 208 (satellite population) in the latest census. The 2010 census showed that the core population was 306, while satellite population was 105. So it’s true that today the population is growing mainly in the outside areas.
The forest department has already given a proposal for declaring a conservation reserve zone at Jesar-Hippavadli in Gujarat, which will be an alternative site for lions. This should be cleared by the government without further delay. Also, Berda wildlife sanctuary near Junagadh was declared a new home for lions in Gujarat way back in 1979. This region has the potential to support 50-80 lions. These two sites can serve as alternative homes for lions in case of an epidemic.
Now coming to the part about shifting lions outside Gujarat, I don’t think it is a very good idea. Lions have never lived in very hot environments. Their occurrence in habitats having very hot weather and dense, semi-moist or moist forest is rare. There is enough evidence that the lion flourished during the little Ice Age medieval period, and the decline of its population and disappearance from the majority of areas in India coincides with the warming trend that started after 1850 AD. Lions vanished from central and north India by the end of the little Ice Age and one of the reasons, besides hunting of the animal, would be climate change.
Perhaps the climate moderated by the Arabian Sea and protection provided by the then Nawab of Junagadh saved the lion from extinction in the Gir forest.
Even if temperatures in the Gir forest reach 40 degrees Celsius or more during the daytime in summer, the lions have enough opportunity in the Gir forest to find a relatively cool environment in the shade of areas. In satellite areas too lions have enough opportunities to get a similar micro-environment in summer.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines on the Species Survival Commission clearly mentions that the new habitat should be evaluated in the background of likely changes in future temperatures due to global warming.
The temperature in Kuno reaches 49 degrees Celsius. While one also needs to look into other technical aspects of shifting lions to Kuno, how these big cats will survive in such a hot environment is a question.
Recently there was debate regarding a proposal to replace the lion as the country’s national animal...
The issue of national animal was settled four decades ago. A member of Parliament wrote a letter to National Board for Wildlife to re-consider the decision and restore the lion to the position it enjoyed before the tiger was made the national animal of India. As per the procedure, the matter was discussed. The minutes of the meeting were displayed on the website of the mininstry of environment. Debate and controversy followed. In India, both have respectable positions—lion is part of the national emblem and tiger is the national animal. The lion has come into the limelight with the launch of the Make in India logo. India is the only country in the world where the two big cats reign in different climatic zones.
Besides the big cats, the National Board for Wildlife has been working on a species recovery programme for saving other endangered species...
Yes about 16 species have been notified as critically endangered in India and the government is working to prepare a recovery plan and implement it very soon. The recovery plan includes research and study of the species, how to improve their population, development of their habitat, breeding them in captivity, among others. A fund is likely to be allotted soon for the recovery of these species.
The species in the recovery plan include the wild buffalo that was once found across the entire central plateau. Today there are only a handful of them left. In fact there is only one female in Chhattisgarh and a few in Maharashtra. Then there is the dugong or the sea cow, whose population is less than 200. The forest owlet has been declared extinct but there have been two reports of their sighting in Maharashtra.
What is the progress in the recovery plan for the Great Indian Bustard? There have been some differences between states, especially Rajasthan and Gujarat, regarding the location of their breeding ground...
It is already too late to save the Great Indian Bustard. Their conservation should have started 10 years ago when they were about 500 in number. The bird was present in eight states in the 1980s. It went down to about 200 two years ago. Today there are less than 120 of them surviving in three states. About 70-80 of them are found in Rajasthan, 30-40 in Gujarat and about 4-5 in Maharashtra. The critical part is that only 30 breeding pairs survive and if immediate action is not taken, we may lose this bird forever. The female lays only one egg and their survival chances are very low as they can fall prey to jackals and other predators. The depleting grassland, human encroachment and transmission lines have led to a decline in their numbers.
The climate in Kutch is most suitable for the bird to breed. But so far a breeding programme has not take shape as the three states are yet to reach an amicable decision. However, all three states should discuss the issue and find a viable option. Although it is very difficult to save them, it does not mean no action should be taken.
Are there any plans to include more species under the recovery plan?
Yes, as and when the board decides that some more species must be introduced, it will be done after due diligence. It has been proposed to introduce Indian Sarus and Lesser Florican to the list. There are about 3,000 Lesser Floricans but their survival is under threat. The Sarus Crane is the tallest bird that can fly and there are about 10,000-11,000 birds in India. The use of chemicals, pesticides and insecticides and electric wires are taking a toll on their numbers. In Gujarat, for example, their breeding site at Bawla-Sanand has been taken away due to industrialization. The same is happening in other parts too.