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Gir Lion deaths: Is it time to find a second home for Asiatic lions?

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Ahmedabad, Sep 25: Gujarat's treasured wildlife reserve suffered a shocking jolt after carcasses of 11 lions, including cubs, were found between September 11 and 19. Nine of those were recovered from Dalkhaniya range and two from the Jashadhar range of Gir Forest.

Image tweeted by ANI

The reasons reported are multi-faceted - infections, food poisoning and infighting. Briefly, these are the threats that face large cats in India.

There is no report of any disease or infection in animals in the said or nearby area so the vaccination drive run by forest department comes under question.

Infighting in the wild mostly occurs when natural resources are scarce and animals encroach upon each others' territory for basic necessities. Experts have for long been saying that Gir has become overcrowded with lions and there is need to spread them out to other locations to ensure their genetic stability and health.

11 lions found dead in Gir forest in 10 days, forest officials suspect infighting

However, the fatal death of 11 lions in such short span of time has once again raised concerns over non-execution of the Supreme Court order in 2013 on translocation of the wildcat to another place to protect them from possible extinction in case of spread of an epidemic.

2013 Supreme Court order on translocation

The Supreme Court in 2013 ruled in favour of translocation of the Asiatic lion to Kuno in the interest of the genetic stability of the species. In a report submitted in 2014, the expert committee largely found Kuno ready to receive the lions and had suggested that a single pride of five to 10 Asiatic lions with 60%-70% female population be moved to start with. Gujarat, however, steadfastly opposed translocation in subsequent meetings of the expert committee.

Gujarat not keen on translocation?

The plan for translocation of lions from Gir to Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh dates back to 1993-94. But things have not moved far in the last 25 years following reluctance of Gujarat government to share state's pride.

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In 2006, the matter reached the doorsteps of the Supreme Court following a lawsuit filed by wildlife ecologist Faiyaz Khusdar, questioning the delay in lion translocation. The Supreme Court in April 2013 ordered Gujarat to give lions to Madhya Pradesh within next six months to save them from extinction due to catastrophes like epidemic, large forest fire and increasing genetic pool.

Five years on, the Gujarat government claims that lions will be translocated, but under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines. These guidelines state that 33 studies need to be conducted before translocation is undertaken.

Conservation takes a back seat

Lions have been seen all over the Gir landscape as well as in towns. They have died being hit by trains and falling into wells. Videos of lions crossing highways and negotiating linear barriers like roads are becoming common.

In the name of regional pride around what the state calls 'Gujarati Asmita,' the state government has refused to part with any lions or partake in a much broader scientific strategy for lion conservation.

In 1913, the population of Asiatic lions had dipped as low as 20. The last census in 2015 pegged the lion population at 523, and the chief minister recently said the population has since increased to 600.

It's a remarkable conservation success story. But unless these lions are translocated and establish at least one additional population, all the success achieved over the last 100 years may come to naught.

Need for a second home for Asiatic lions

Success comes with its own problems. The Gir Forest is unable to sustain the steadily increasing numbers. The informal lion habitat area has doubled-from 10,000 sq km in 2010 to 20,000 sq km in 2015. During this period, some 1,500 villages in eight of the nine districts of Saurashtra region have become part of the lion habitat. If this growth in lion population sustains, then instances of man-animal conflicts will increase. The strategies that have been effective are unlikely to be successful as as more and more villages become part of the informal lion habitat.

What is their future?

Gir in the southern Saurashtra peninsula of Gujarat, which is the lone abode of the Asiatic lion in the wild some 523 Asiatic lions live there as per the 2015 census is otherwise a place where humans and lions live peacefully.

The government, which has always taken pride in showcasing Gujarat as the only habitat of Asiatic lions, refuses to translocate as per Supreme Court order. There is a need to make sincere efforts to provide adequate protection to the animals moving out to non-protected areas.

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