The Gujarat government has once again strongly opposed the Centre's persistent move to translocate a certain number of Asiatic lions from the Gir forest on the Saurashtra peninsula to the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, contending that they would not be safe there.
Arguing Gujarat's case in the Supreme Court on Monday, senior counsel Shyam Divan told a Bench of Justice K S Radhakrishnan and Justice K C Prasad that the Centre's fear that an epidemic in the only habitat of the Asiatic lions might wipe out the already rare royal animals was baseless and without any scientific proof.
The counsel argued that lions could not be safe in Kuno-Palpur which could not protect even its tigers. There was a time when Kuno-Palpur was brimming with several dozen tigers.
But MP government's apathetic approach to put in place a proper system to protect the handsome beasts as well as frequent poaching incidents have made Kuno-Palpur almost bereft of tigers now.
Though the Gir lions are not genetically weak, it is doubtful whether the weather and environment of Kuno-Palpur would suit them when it comes to survival. The Gujarat government has always maintained that the lions just cannot live with tigers. According to a forest official, in the past, too, the shifting of lions to Madhya Pradesh had proved disastrous.
"Translocation of several lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh first took place in 1974 and again in 1981. Some of them were reported to have been fatally attacked by tigers, which are usually stronger among big cats," he revealed.
The Centre and Gujarat seem to have made this a prestige issue ever since the proposal to shift a few Gir lions was formulated in 2000. In 2006, a study by Wildlife Institute of India identified Kuno-Palpur as the most suitable sanctuary for this purpose.
The issue of translocation was seriously raised during two advisory meetings of the National Board for Wildlife, in 2006-07, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But the Gujarat government strongly opposed the move and said in no uncertain terms that it would not part with a single of its pride..
In 2009, the NBW, which advises the Ministry of Environment and Forests, had recommended translocation of the Gir lions to Kuno-Palpur. Last month, the court ordered the Gujarat State Wildlife Board to reconsider the shifting of lions and submit a report. At its March 16 meeting, held in Gandhinagar and headed by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the GSWB unanimously opposed the translocation of lions.
As the Centre has been planning to introduce cheetahs in Kuno-Palpur, the Gujarat government has proffered a new reason to oppose the move. It was suggested in the apex court that the African cheetahs should first be allowed to acclimatise themselves in the wildlife sanctuary and only then steps may be taken for the translocation of the Asiatic lions.
The State government has maintained that translocation of the Gir lions to Kuno-Palpur would not be feasible, not just because of the presence of tigers in the game reserve, but also because the Centre is now giving priority to reintroducing cheetah there.The counsel stated that if the lions were first shifted to Kuno-Palpur, they might not allow cheetahs to establish themselves. Considering everything, it does appear that the Centre and the Gujarat government are in for a long legal battle.