Even after rulings from the apex court and threat to the lion population in Gir, political drama is preventing their relocation to Kuno National Park
On 10 August, the eve of World Lion Day, a webinar was organised by the Central Zoo Authority, in which Chief Wildlife Warden Shyamal Tikadar was a speaker along with Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) and some other experts. Tikadar said that species like tiger and lion have traditional linkages with communities and “this bonding gives rise to ownership and no owner would obviously give away the ownership.”
He suggested that lions can be better managed if they are “less” in numbers. “How many lions can society tolerate? We are sitting on a time bomb,” he said, “70-80% are not wild per se”.
Acting against Tikadar, Gujarat government on 13 August issued a notice to him saying his comments were “undesirable” and “irresponsible” and asked for his explanation for speaking against government policies.
A press release issued by Gujarat government then elaborated on its conservative policies for lions, mentioning that the government has been successful in this regard.
This was a rare occasion when a top bureaucrat’s statement gave a political angle to policy for this animal, as the 2013 SC ruling on translocation of lions has not been implemented mainly due to political reasons.
Kuno National Park, second home for lions
Originating from Shivpuri plateau, Kuno river, an important tributary of the Chambal, flows through Kuno National Park — a much touted potential second home for lions in India. Even amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing monsoons have added to the beauty around the national park, which has plans of reopening in mid-September.
Kuno is awaiting its new inhabitants– Gir lions — and it is all set to become a new home for them. Currently, Gir is inhabited by 674 lions — it saw a 28.87% rise in its population from the last census in 2015, something the PM tweeted about.
Counting for the census was done using the Poonam Avlokan method — Direct Beat Verification also known as the Block Count method on 5-6 June.
Experts, however, questioned the authenticity of the census as the method employed to count lions owing to restrictions presented by the pandemic is archaic. While regular census is done using more scientific methods, Poonam Avlokan was used as interim measure during the pandemic.
In 1990, Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous institute under ministry of environment, forest and climate change and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an NGO working for wildlife conservation, identified the park as a potential habitat for the reintroduction of lions. Later, between 1996 and 2001, 23 villages were resettled from inside the identified Kuno wildlife sanctuary by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, most of the villages belonging to the Sahariya tribe. After that an area of about 1,280 square km was demarcated as the Kuno wildlife division.
Lions, a political issue
Shifting the lions to Kuno has become a political issue. In 2013, the apex court ruled that relocation of lions should be done in the next six months. Later, then CM Narendra Modi who associates Gir’s lion with Gujarati Asmita (pride) took this issue further. His government filed a review petition, then a curative petition exhausting all legal means. After that, Gujarat insisted on completion of more than 30 studies according to the relocation guideline of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The MP government also remained cold to the idea. Even when the SC appointed an expert committee in December 2016 asking it to notify Kuno as a national park, it delayed it until late 2018. In December 2018, MP changed Kuno’s status from a wildlife sanctuary to that of a national park, increasing the protected area by 413 square km.
The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government always avoided the issue of reintroduction — possibly because Gir’s lions are very dear to PM Modi and the Shivraj government does not want to confront him on it.
When Kamal Nath became the CM of Madhya Pradesh, the issue was reignited. He wrote to PM Modi in February last year stating that Kuno is ready for the translocation of lions. It was then assumed that translocation would start by 2020.
Local leaders and activists also became hopeful, as the shifting of lions would bring in a lot of tourist-centric opportunities for local communities. Atul Chouhan, a Congress leader from Sheopur district and president of Kuno Sangharsh Samiti, a volunteer-based group of local community, said that the current footfall of tourists is around 2,000 /2,500 per year and with the coming of lions it would increase, which will also bring employment opportunities for locals.
On 28 January this year, a bench headed by then Chief Justice of India Justice S A Bobde while hearing the application of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) overturned the 7-year-old stand of SC and allowed the introduction of African cheetah from Namibia on an experimental basis. The cheetah is the only mammal species that had gone extinct in India, and Kuno was identified as a potential home for it along with the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary.
However local activists want lions to be introduced first, then the cheetahs. “Scientists say lions and cheetahs can live together, and we want lions first. After that the government can introduce cheetahs as well,” said Chouhan.
“It is a settled matter that lions are to be translocated from Gujarat, but that is not the case with cheetahs, they are to be introduced from Africa. The 2013 judgement is very much valid here saying translocate lions within six months in letter and spirit.” said Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist who was part of a committee appointed by the Supreme Court for the translocation of lions.
Now when the government has changed in MP, it seems that this issue is getting further tangled in red tapism as the MP CM doesn’t want to ask the Gujarat government to translocate the lions. Even when Gujarat’s reluctance to translocate lions could amount to contempt of court, the current MP government is not keen on the issue and the ongoing pandemic has helped it maintain its calculated silence.
PM’s tweet on the population rise of lions manifests why the BJP government in MP is avoiding the issue for years. Nobody wants to upset the PM by taking on the responsibility for the lives of Gir lions.
A retired forest officer, who has closely observed the issue on the condition of anonymity said, “This project would have been stalled forever unless the SC intervened. Still, I know the bureaucracy would take as much time as it can to delay it. However, because of the SC’s judgement it will be implemented sooner or later.”
Lower rank forest officials in Kuno National park also sense this. We spoke with guards and range officers during our visit. “I am new here but we have been hearing for years now that lions are coming, then cheetahs are coming. We don’t have any information on immediate translocation here.” said Virendra Kumar, a range officer.
Santosh Kumar, another 30-year-old forest guard, echoes the same thoughts. “Habitat is ready, incidents of poaching have been contained, but we are still waiting.”
Down to Earth reported that 92 lions have died since January this year and the “Union government was well aware of the high mortality of lions in Gir.” The report also said that these lions of Gir died of canine distemper virus (CDV), a highly infectious disease which is passed through animals like feral dogs. Experts have time and again spoken against the dangers of outbreaks of such diseases. In a research conducted last year, 68 lions along with six leopards were found to have been infected with this disease.
Not just this, working as double whammy the disease babesiosis, a tick-borne ailment, claimed the lives of 27 lions in 2018. The 1994 outbreak of CDV)killed 1,000 lions in Tanzania and is a testament to the havoc such outbreaks are capable of wreaking.
“There is one basket, whether you have four eggs, 50 eggs or 5,000 eggs, so risk is very high. And some lions have always gone outside the protected area, the national park is just a 1,412 square km area. They are going out of the park for good reasons, either because they cannot stay inside due to territory issues or easy food outside. As per recent census, 50% of the lions are living outside the protected area in human dominated habitats, so risk is very high — trains, electricity, livestock, open wells, traffic, disease outbreaks are all ever present threats,” said Chellam. “Since livestock is not vaccinated, the risk of disease outbreaks also increases,” he adds.
The local people sacrificed a lot for Kuno National Park. Around 25 villages and more than 1,400 odd families were resettled in the translocation project. Saharias gave up their traditional livelihoods and resettled to host villages near the park. Not just Saharias, communities like Jatav and Yadav also compromised and have had to resettle.
The resettled families could not be reached due to the Covid-19 restrictions, but villagers living near the park raised the issue of access to the forest, which has now been restricted and only available to those who have contacts with lower rank officials of the park “Ab park me jane nai dete chale jate apai dhoran le jinne guard aur je adhikari janbe bare hote. Ab je lockdown me baithe hai” (Now we don’t go into the park, though some can access the park if they know the lower rank officers. Now in this lockdown, we are all sitting idle,” said Chote Adivasi.
(Cover: Despite the apex court’s directive to ensure the relocation of lions from Gir in 2013, Kuno is still waiting its new inhabitants)