The Supreme Court of India has ruled that a portion of the endangered Asiatic lion population in the Gir Forest be relocated to a second home in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madya Pradesh (MP).

Gir Forest female and cub. (Photo-Kishore Kotecha)

The Asiatic lion was once found across large parts of central and northern India. But centuries of colonization and large-scale trophy hunting decimated the population. By the late 19th century the Asiatic lion was reduced to less than two dozen animals in the Gir Forest, in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Saved by a Prince.

After India received its independence in 1947, the district’s ruling prince placed strict restrictions on hunting the Gir lions and set up lion reserves on the southern tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula which became known as the Gir Conservation Area.

Today, the 560-square-mile Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, just a few kilometers from the Arabian Sea, holds the world’s last population of Asian (Gir) lions–around 400 animals.

Boxed in

by more than 100,000 people in villages surrounding the forest, the lions’ interactions with humans have become tenuous. With territory in short supply, the big cats have established satellite populations in wooded areas outside the park and human interaction is taking a toll.

India’s leading wildlife experts made the case that, being confined to a single location the lions were subject to extinction from an epidemic or forest fire, and the need to find a second home for the lions was flagged as a priority by the national wildlife action plan.

Researchers at the Wildlife Institute of India identified the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in the central part of the country as the most promising location. It had space and, most important, potential for a large enough population of animals for the lions to feed on.

Gir forest lion. (Photo: AFP)

Unwilling to Cooperate.

Attached to the lions for social and political reasons, the state government of Gujarat has been unwilling to cooperate. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, made a public promise to his constituency that “Gujarat’s lions will not leave the state”. Many in Gujarat fear that Madya Pradesh, which has an extremely poor record of protecting its tigers, will not adequately protect the cats.

The Supreme Court’s judgment,

issued on April 15, concluded that Kuno had a sufficient density of prey to sustain lions, and that the state of MP had made the necessary preparations on the ground (24 villages were relocated). It therefore ordered the ministry of environment and forests “to take urgent steps for re-introduction of Asiatic lion[s] from Gir forests to Kuno”. The court asked that their order “be carried out in its letter and spirit and within a period of 6 months from today”. it added that there was a need to take urgent steps as “no species can survive on the brink of extinction indefinitely and the probabilities associated with a critically endangered species make their extinction a matter of time”.

Gujarati non-governmental organizations are mobilizing to stop any attempt at taking animals away from Gir and are preparing to file a review petition to prevent the transfer of the first lot of lions from Gir to Palpur Kuno.