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Restoring lost prides
Establishing a second sanctuary is a step in the right direction in managing our success in conserving the Asiatic lion. But all stakeholders need to pull together now.
Lions evolved in the savannas of Africa and radiated into a variety of habitats initially through most of Africa and then into Asia, ranging as far East as parts of Bihar. In Africa they were found from the Atlas Mountains in the North to the Cape in the South, through habitats ranging from deserts to rainforests and everything in between, a clear indicator of the great adaptability of the species.
The dramatic reduction in the distribution range and population of the lions in Asia in the 1800s was largely due to human action: hunting of lions and their prey species with firearms and conversion of their habitats into agricultural fields and human settlements. By the 1880s lions in India were restricted to the Gir forest in Saurashtra peninsula in Gujarat. The Asiatic lions had a close brush with extinction as their numbers plummeted according to various reports to as low as less than 20 animals in the early 1900s. Strict protection, initially by the Nawab of Junagadh and post-Independence, by the Gujarat state government, with strong support of the local people has been responsible for the remarkable recovery of the Asiatic lions from the brink of extinction. The Indian government, national and international conservation institutions have also made important contributions to achieve this success.
In one of the first meetings of the Indian Board for Wildlife in the early 1950s it was decided that a second free-ranging population of lions would be established. Accordingly three lions were transported by train from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh and released in Chandraprabha Sanctuary in 1957-58. Reports indicate that these three settled down and bred and their population reached up to 11 lions before they 'disappeared'. Clearly, lions do not disappear. It is most likely that these lions ranged out of the sanctuary limits since it was a relatively small protected area of only about 100 sq km, killed livestock and were probably shot dead.
While this attempt may have failed, it still gave us very important lessons;the need for the site to be large enough to host lions, the need for adequate number of wild prey, the importance of continuous monitoring, proactive management and strict protection. Current plans for translocating lions to Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh have incorporated these lessons and will also use all available knowledge to ensure that the translocation is well planned, efficiently implemented and rigorously monitored.
This initiative builds on the success that has been achieved in Gujarat and is required because of the risks faced by single populations of endangered species. This is a major action point in the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016 ). I often compare the planned translocation to any of us buying life insurance. When we buy insurance we do not expect misfortune to befall us, and look at the policy more as a proactive measure to reduce risk. Similarly the establishment of a second freeranging population of wild lions will enhance their chances for long-term survival.
My doctoral research which was done under the aegis of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Saurashtra University focused on the predation ecology, ranging patterns, habitat use and social organisation of Asiatic lions. Findings from this research were used as the basis for a survey of potential sites for reintroduction of lions by WII in 1993-94. Based on this Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh was chosen as the most suitable site for translocating lions.
From 1995 to 2013 has been a long and eventful journey for this conservation initiative. With the Supreme Court ruling that lions have to be translocated to establish a second free-ranging population, it is very important to first assess the current state of preparedness of Kuno to host the translocated lions. Key aspects that need to be reviewed include the expansion and upgradation of the protected area;deployment of sufficient committed and trained staff;protection status in and around Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary;availability of sufficient prey base for lions;awareness levels of local communities to this project and efforts to make them partners in this conservation initiative to build strong local support. It is equally important that the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Government of India declare their long-term commitment for this conservation initiative.
While this initiative has faced close scrutiny and its share of criticism it has perhaps emerged stronger as a result of this. The time has come for us to leave the past behind and to work in a cooperative manner to implement the order of the Supreme Court in its letter and spirit. The task is enormous and challenging and it requires strong commitment from all government agencies, scientists, conservationists, local communities, media and the Indian public at large for it to succeed. India has a strong internationally recognised track record in wildlife conservation which is often dominated by tigers. I think the time has now come for our work with lions to take centrestage and set an excellent example for the world.
The writer is with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.
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