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'Nobody is snatching away the lions from Gujarat'

Last updated on: May 15, 2013 13:07 IST

Image: An Englishman shoots a lion in Kathiawad, Gujarat. An illustration from an 1873 issue of The Graphic, a British weekly illustrated newspaper
Photographs: Originally published in The Graphic Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

'Some fear that Gujarat's tourism potential will be lost. That's wrong. Gujarat has such wonderful places. And they have developed such a wonderful system of tourism for the Asiatic lion. That will continue.''s Vaihayasi Pande Daniel discusses the April 15 Supreme Court order -- where a pride or two of lions will move from the Gir forest in Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh, with Dr Asad R Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society.

The Asiatic lion lost much of its empire centuries ago.

Like some disinherited royal, who has been turned out of his grand palace and exiled from his kingdom, Panthera leo persica has been confined to just 1,412 sq km of living space in the Gir Forest, Gujarat, and its surroundings, when once, as his scientific name firmly indicates, he roamed from Mesopotamia and Turkey to Iran, Iraq and as east as Russia and Bengal. Art, coins, pottery depicting lions, found across this region is testimony.

Nearly hunted out of existence, according to Sudipta Mitra's Gir Forest and the Saga of the Asiatic Lion, British officers and Indian maharajas gleefully killed lions at record speed for amusement.

George Acland Smith killed 50 lions between 1857 and 1858; Andrew Fraser killed 84 lions; Maharao Bishan Singh of Bundi shot over a hundred lions in his lifetime, while Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo of Sarguja, known for killing 1,000 tigers, was disappointed with netting just one lion.

The last few lions (about a dozen) miraculously survived when Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III Rasul Khanji, the nawab of Junagadh, more famous for attempting to have his kingdom accede to Pakistan, took them under his wing and gave them a protected home in the Gir Forest.

The nawab would be delighted to know that the dozen beasts he fostered have now grown to over 400 and their descendants will shortly undertake a historic voyage, as per the Supreme Court's April 15 ruling by Justices K S Radhakrishan and Chandramauli Kumar Prasad (Centre for Environmental Law WWF-1 vs Union of India and others), when a few pride of lions will be transplanted to the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Madhya Pradesh, near Shivpuri, 120 km from Gwalior and 220 km from Kota in Rajasthan.

Please click NEXT to read why it is important for the lions to travel to MP

'There is no Gir lion. They are Asiatic lions'

Image: An Asiatic lion has a snooze in the Gir forest
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters spoke to Dr Asad R Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society, about the importance of the transfer of lions to Madhya Pradesh and why Gujarat was reluctant to hand over a few of its lions.

In addition to being the director of the BNHS since 1997, Dr Rahmani has worked for 35 years in wildlife, has worked as the principal scientist on several wildlife projects, has taught wildlife and is a member on various national wildlife boards and government wildlife committees.

Can moving the lions from Gir to Madhya Pradesh upset the ecology of the Palpur-Kuno area in any way?

Like one reads about the damage certain animals, brought by British settlers, did to the wildlife of Australia.

Those were invasive species.

The lion is not an invasive species. It was always found (in that area).

But lions have not recently been in that environment?

That does not matter. Hundred years, two hundred years is not much.

The lion is a cat. Cats are easy to breed. Cats are adaptable. Cats can eat anything. Particularly, the lion. So there is no problem in reintroducing them.

I have used the word assisted dispersal because lions, fortunately, (thanks to) good conservation, good protection, have increased in Gujarat and Saurashtra and they are now (spread across) a 50,000 sq feet radius and can be seen 120 to 130 km from Gir.

Gir is the centre and from there they are spreading out.

It is a natural tendency of a species to spread when the population increases and they will spread to those areas where there is no barrier for them.

For instance, they cannot spread to Sri Lanka because there is a big barrier. Human beings have created a huge number of barriers, because of our human presence -- cities, roads and all sorts of things -- (and lions need help in dispersal).

So bringing the lion to Kuno -- a small population, a small pride -- (is assisted dispersal). People (are under the impression) that the Gir lion is being translocated.

First of all, there is no Gir lion. They are Asiatic lions, happy to live in Gir, surviving in Gir.

Secondly, the government is not translocating all of them. It is one pride which is being taken for introduction purpose. And possibly in future they can be exchanged, once the population increases there (in Madhya Pradesh). They can be exchanged for the gene flow and all that.

It is done all over the world, not for the lion, but for many other species.

I was in Saudi Arabia recently, two months ago. They have re-introduced the Arabian oryx very successfully. The Arabian oryx became extinct as a wild creature in 1973; they were hunted out. But all the Middle East governments wanted to bring the animals back into protected areas.

When I was there recently I saw third generation breeding happening. They run away from you because they have become wild.

It is nothing new to re-introduce animals, It is a very good thing. In Europe there is a movement to bring back the animals that became extinct in the last 100 to 200 years.

It is a very good indication of human development that you are reversing the mistakes we did a couple of years ago or hundred years ago.

So the reintroduction of the Asiatic lion to Kuno-Palpur -- or any other place for that matter -- why only Kuno-Palpur? -- is a good thing.

I am sure in the future the Kuno-Palpur experiment is going to be very, very successful because the Madhya Pradesh government has done wonderful work to develop that area. I have seen that area and have been going to Kuno-Palpur from 1982 onwards.

Why was Kuno-Palpur chosen?

It is the best area among all areas.

It is a big area. It has a very good prey base. It has got almost seven species prey base -- sambar, chital, nilgai, chinkara, four-horned antelope, wild boar and the black buck, which has now disappeared (moved elsewhere).

The prey is also in big numbers. A lion can eat anything; it is a very adaptable species like the cat.

The lion used to live in this area before?

Yes. If you do research you will find that the lion was present (as far as) Haryana (and as south as the Narmada river).

There are records of Mughals, as well as the British killing lions in Delhi (as late as) 1828 or something.

There were lions in Punjab, almost the whole of Rajasthan, except in the very, very dry areas.

Probably 5,000 years ago the lion was found across the (entire) Thar Desert, because a lion can live in areas ranging from tropical rain forests to the extreme desert.

The lion was present in Pakistan (it was part of India at that time). It was present in Iran, Iraq. So I don't see any problem in Kuno-Palpur.

When the Supreme Court delivers a judgment like what it did, do the judges take advice from various wildlife bodies?

The Supreme Court always does. They respect the experts' advice as well as their own judgment.

Earlier, there was an experiment done in 1958 (with the Asiatic lion). Five animals were introduced in Chandra Prabha (near Varanasi) in Uttar Pradesh. They had become 11. So breeding was not a problem (but they went missing). That was 50 years (ago). At that time the wildlife cadre was not so well developed. Now it is very well developed.

The Madhya Pradesh government has done extremely good work as far as this project is concerned. I have seen Kuno-Palpur, so I am talking from my own experience.

There has been a remarkable change in the habitat. They have removed almost 22 villages for the lion. And there is almost contiguous forest spreading across 3,000 sq km. Where will you get that sort of big area?

There is no other animal that can endanger the lion there? Like tigers?

I am a biologist. If you take it from the bio-geographical point of view, we had the lion, the cheetah, the leopard and the tiger (in one area).

There is a difference between space and time. There could be some areas where the lion and tiger were together. But the tiger lives in thick forest. The lion prefers open countryside (type) forest.

Serengeti (Kenya and Tanzania, Africa) is a classic example. They (the lions) live in grasslands there. Of course, there are some copses where they hide and lay their litter. They are a very adaptable species.

Lions were living in Iran. Iran does not have a huge amount of forest. So they were always there where the prey base was very good or they could get water.

So there were always some areas where the lion, the leopard, the cheetah must have survived. Areas where the lion, the leopard and the tiger must have survived. Areas where only cheetahs survived in vast open countryside etc.

There are many species -- many cats, birds also -- they have ecological segregation. They feed at different timings. They have a micro-habitat niche requirement which are slightly different from each other. They may live in the same large geographical area but use different habitats.

So lions and tigers could have lived together. At present what we are seeing is the artificial distribution of animals, because we have killed and destroyed the animals from most of areas.

Earlier the lion was present in half the country, even up to east Bihar and West Bengal. The lion came from the west and the tiger came from the east.

Please click NEXT to read why Gujarat should get back its tigers

'I would be very happy if Gujarat gets the tiger back'

Image: A family of Asiatic lions rest in the shade in the Gir forest
Photographs: Courtesy: Mayankvagadiya/Wikimedia Commmons

Which other areas were considered apart from Kuno-Palpur?

Sita Mata (near Pratapgarh) and Kumbalgarh. They are in Rajasthan, but they are small. Sita Mata is around 300 sq km. Kumbalgarh is around 500 sq km in the Aravallis.

Five hundred sq km is small and you have to enclose it because beyond that it is barren, there are mines and all sorts of other things.

Kuno-Palpur was the best area. Bigger and contiguous. A lot of continuous forest. Almost 3,000 sq km -- it is not hundred per cent continuous -- but at least 900 sq km is good contiguous forest. And there are patches that are continuous to each other.

There are reserves forests in Sheopuri and Shivpuri. Then on the other side in Rajasthan we have got (Ranthambore and Sariska). I think it is a very good step.

Why weren't other areas within Gujarat also considered?

Where? There is the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary (near Porbandar). That is a very small area (282 sq km).

And it is not the Gujarat lion. It is the Asiatic lion. We are bringing it back to the areas where it became extinct because of certain reasons, certain human behaviour in the olden days.

Now we are rectifying those mistakes. So what is the problem in that?

I don't want to comment on political statements. The issue is Gujarat should also get tigers back. Gujarat used to have tigers in The Dangs and other areas, north Gujarat.

If Gujarat wants to introduce tigers, I will be the first person to support them. Why not? Let them do it and let them have a big area of protected forest.

When you are reintroducing animals you have to see that the area is well-protected. You have to remove all the factors due to which the animal became locally extinct in that area.

I would be very happy that Gujarat gets the tiger back. Like a few years ago near Bombay, at Tungeshwar, there was a tigress and she stayed there for almost a year.

If you protect the habitat (the animals return). These are nocturnal species. They travel nocturnally very widely.

So if a good area in north Gujarat is protected for the tiger, we can do assisted dispersal. We should bring some tigers back. Why not?

So politics should not enter these issues?

Yes, this is pure conservation.

Not only this species, we would like other species to be there. We want to introduce the great Indian bustard in big numbers into some areas where it became extinct.

Gujarat will be the first to get the birds. They are not Rajasthani birds. They are Indian birds -- the Great Indian Bustard (which is on the verge of extinction; some 250 are left as per World Wildlife Fund figures). Nothing to do with any state.

Why did the population of lions endure in Gir?

It is mainly because of the Nawab of Junagadh.

Gir was under the Nawab of Junagadh. When he discovered (because of excessive hunting) that very few lions were left, he started protecting them. And he protected them very well.

At that time only one or two were shot for sports purposeS, but it was not a massacre. Because of that the lions were safe otherwise they would have become extinct.

The British were killing the last lions. Or the maharajas. The rarer the species, the greater the sport at that time.

Fortunately, the Nawab of Junagadh took that step at that time. And he fought many battles with his neighbours. Every king wanted to have one lion shot.

When you have twenty kings coming in all the lions would have become extinct.

Please click NEXT to read about the issues required for the success of the lion transfer project

''There is an excess population of lions in Gir'

Image: An Asiatic lioness
Photographs: Courtesy: Stuutje1979/Wikimedia Commons

For this assisted dispersal project for lions to be a success, what are some of the key issues?

I am not a lion expert, or an expert of that region, but as a conservationist I support (the project) fully. But there are experts like Dr (Y V) Jhala (of the World Wildlife Institute) and Dr Ravi Chellam (director, Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme) and the Madhya Pradesh government and even the Gujarat government (who need to be involved). So it should be a collaborative project.

The people from Gujarat should come with the Asiatic lion. They have done good work. I must praise them. They should also teach the Madhya Pradesh people if it is required.

Madhya Pradesh can also take care of the lion because, as I said earlier, it is a very adaptable species, it will survive. The only thing is it cannot survive the poaching.

So the Madhya Pradesh government has to ensure that there is zero poaching. And the lions should not stray out. And all animals should be radio collared.

They will not be released the first day. They will be put in a larger fenced (enclosure), then they get used to that and they will be monitored and there will be researchers to do it.

Secondly, some people say the temperature is very high at Kuno-Palpur. What is the difference in temperature? Earlier when they were living there temperature did not matter to them.

Earlier also they were living in areas where the temperature could go up to 48 degrees C. In Iran it can go up to 50 degrees C.

You have to provide them shelter and water which any forest will provide them. The Madhya Pradesh government has taken care of all these things. There is a perennial river flowing there. They have the water holes there. What more can they do?

The animal has to live. And they live in extreme conditions. Food is not the problem. Even if supplementary food is required in the beginning it will be done. It will be very scientifically done.

Will they get all the necessary assistance to choose the right specimens?

Yes, we are expecting that. Gujarat's support is crucial. We would like to convince them. It is not that someone is snatching away the lions from them.

We have to convince them on a scientific basis that this is an experiment for the safety of the lion, for the welfare of the species.

The Government of India has asked the Wildlife Institute of India to choose the species.

Some fear that Gujarat's tourism potential will be lost. That's wrong. Gujarat has such wonderful places. And they have developed such a wonderful system of tourism for the Asiatic lion. That will continue. Probably it will grow.

I will give you an example. When rhinoceros were re-introduced into the Dudhwa National Park (at the foothills of the Himalayas), the Assam government had the same problem. They said: 'Nahin nahin hum apne rhinoceros nahin jaane denge. (We will not allow our rhinoceros to go).

Mrs Indira Gandhi was fortunately alive at that time. She said this is being done for the welfare of the species. Then too I remember talking with the Assamese experts. They said there is a temperature difference.

Assam does not become zero degrees C. In Dudhwa it becomes almost 1 to 2 degrees C in winter. I said: "What about Nepal?" Nepal it becomes colder and Nepal has the rhinoceros."

Then they did a study of the Botanical Survey of India of the grass that are found in Dudhwa as well as Kaziranga and Manas. They found that 60 percent of the grass were common. But they were worried about the 40 percent of grass that were not common. I asked them: "Why don't you look at the 60 percent grass that are common? Or that earlier rhinoceros was present in the whole of Terai. There is a record of Babar hunting a rhinoceros 430 or 450 years ago at Peshawar. They were all over."

They said people would stop coming to Kaziranga to see the rhinoceros. (Today) at Kaziranga there is a problem of plenty of tourism.

At Dudhwa most people don't go to see the rhinoceros. They go to see the tiger. So the tourism potential of Kaziranga has not decreased.

It is increasing all around?

It is increasing because of the growth of the middle class. We will have another 800 million middle class people in 20 years time.

So if even one percentage go to parks or sanctuaries, think of how much tourists we will have.

So to say that if you bring lions to Kuno-Palpur the tourism of Gir will decrease -- I don't believe this. No figures will tell you this. No sensible person will tell you this.

And the population of lions in Gir is safe and not in danger of any sort?

They have increased. There are more than 410. Nearly 100 Asiatic lions are living outside Gir. You see them on the coast. There is an excess population. So the Government of India is planning to send one pride from there. Or possibly two or three.

No one is saying they are taking the lions from the Gir Forest or the Gir National Park. They will be taken from outside.

Does re-introduction of animal species happen across international borders as well?

It happens, but it is more difficult across international borders most certainly.

Does Pakistan want our lions, considering they once had lions too?

I don't know. But Iran wanted our lions in the early 1970s when the Shah was there. They wanted to give us cheetahs and (in exchange) they wanted the lions. It didn't happen.

I don't know the politics of that. But I am sure if it was done properly, Mrs Indira Gandhi would have agreed. It should have been done.