Into the lion's den: the controversy surrounding India's big cats

Efforts to relocate lions from Gujarat's Gir National Park have stalled for more than a decade

On the bumpy track that weaves across a baked landscape towards Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, you'll find some of Central India's most impoverished villages. Small crude houses of roughly cut stone barely have the will to stand; water is scarce, summers ferocious.

A few kilometres beyond the last village, Kuno's Tiktoli entrance gate is framed by a curving wall with cartoon-like paintings: a maned lion on one side, a lioness with cubs on the other. In terrain where the elusive tiger is the apex predator, celebratory images of lions might seem baffling.

India's overlooked lions

Real lions probably haven't roamed this part of the country since the early 1800s, but if the Indian government has its way, a small population of flesh and blood Panthera leo leo will move here to make themselves a new home.

Amid the excitement and exhilaration of tiger tourism and spotting, the survival and predicament of India's Asiatic lions is largely overlooked. It's surprising because lions are at the heart of India's national emblem (which is based on the famous 2,000-year-old Lion Capital of Ashoka sculpture). They feature prominently in Hindu and Buddhist thought, myths and legends. The common Indian surname Singh, meaning "lion", has deliberate connotations of strength, power and prestige.

Slightly smaller than their African cousins, Asiatic lions were long considered a subspecies – one of 11 – indigenous to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. In 2017, with the formal classification of lions simplified into only two subspecies, they joined the smaller and more esoteric branch.

Gujarat's rare success story

Once fairly widespread across the Middle East and West Asia, their range is now confined to India's Gir National Park and a few adjoining tracts, all in Gujarat. They've been listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List since the mid-1980s and, according to a June 2020 census, the population stands at 674, a 29 per cent increase on 2015, the last time a count was conducted.

Scant though it seems, that number actually represents a remarkable conservation success story. By the early 1900s, hunting and shooting meant numbers had reputedly plummeted to between 20 and 50 individuals. A succession of rulers and officials from the then princely state of Junagadh stepped up efforts to protect those remaining lions and their numbers gradually revived.

Today's rather unusual problem, explains Dr Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist, conservation scientist and chief executive of the Metastring Foundation, is that this population has become too large for the available protected wilderness. Some lions now roam widely beyond it in forest fragments and agricultural fields, a matrix of human-dominated habitats. The survey in 2020 found a 36 per cent increase in their territory, compared to 2015. Chellam likens their population to a basket of eggs. “If the basket falls, all the eggs are bound to break,” he says.

By falling baskets, he's alluding to the intrinsic vulnerability of and threats to what is essentially a single population. While fire and natural disasters might not be fatal, viruses – particularly canine distemper virus – are a real concern. In autumn 2018, more than two dozen lions died in one forest pocket, most if not all from canine distemper virus, although local authorities pinned some of the blame on natural infighting. Last year, more died from babesiosis, a tick-borne parasite.

Chellam, who has held top country director roles at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India and Greenpeace India, began studying these lions in the mid-1980s for his doctorate. Few, if any, know more about them or their ecology. He is at pains to point out how Gujarat's extraordinary success relies as much on local tolerance of and fondness for the animals, as proactive authorities.

Two-way tolerance

Unlike their African cousins, Asiatic lions are forest dwellers and live mainly on deer. While a handful have become trapped in farmers' wells or have been killed by trains, lion-human conflict and human fatalities are relatively rare. If anything, it is the lion's apparent “tolerance” of people and the frequency of uneventful close encounters that is most remarkable.

Occasionally, videos showing their urban ease surface. One now-viral CCTV clip from February shows a lioness casually sauntering up and over the barrier of a Junagadh hotel car park for a 5am wander, less than a metre from the lobby's windows.

Chellam is a passionate advocate for what is unequivocally and scientifically in the species' best interests to safeguard survival: the translocation of some individuals to another protected sanctuary in India.

He is not alone. In 2013, India's Supreme Court explicitly ruled – with a comprehensive 67-page judgment – that such a translocation was required within six months. That decision was the culmination of decades of planning, investigations, surveys, reports and, ultimately, foot-dragging. And still, eight years later, in 2021, it looks as elusive as ever.

The 'pride of Gujarat'

In the years since that 2013 verdict, the Gujarati “resistance” has tendered several mostly rehashed arguments to stall relocation. Kuno's ungulate prey base and density have been questioned. Its climate has been queried and its few tigers flagged as an issue. Gujarat just doesn't want to let go of any lions.

Further muddying the waters is the recent resurrection of a plan to reintroduce cheetahs (which became extinct in India by the early 1950s) from Namibia, for which Kuno is cited as a good home.

The translocation idea is hardly new. In the late 1950s, three lions were moved to the Chandraprapha Sanctuary, a one-time royal hunting ground near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. A decade later, the three had become 11, only to abruptly disappear without a trace. But those were the old and arguably lackadaisical days, with a weaker legal framework. Even Project Tiger hadn't yet been launched by the government to safeguard India's favourite big cat.

Kuno National Park (sometimes still referred to as Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary) has long been the optimum location. Set amid a relatively wild and thinly populated tract in the northern part of Madhya Pradesh, near the border with Rajasthan, it feels uncharacteristically remote. Pausing briefly at Tiktoli gate, an official told me barely 1,000 visitors had entered here the previous year.

A nuanced problem

We drove along graded tracks that weave through an almost savannah-like landscape of bleached grass and long flat-topped hills bristling with acacia, dhok and Indian frankincense trees. Scattered clusters of stones are all that remains of 24 villages – its 1,500 families were relocated just outside the park to make way for lions.

“The majority were Sahariyas, an impoverished tribal caste, and there were also some Mogiya families,” explains Sunny Shah, an environmental scientist, naturalist and conservationist who has worked for the World Wildlife Fund-India, and various state governments and NGOs. Familiar with Kuno and Gir, Shah's holistic views on species conservation and habitat management help to illuminate a nuanced picture.

Traditionally skilled hunter-gatherers, the Mogiyas are expert trackers, too. Much of their subsistence hunting and meat-eating are a consequence of long-standing social stigma and a largely outdated reputation as rogues and thieves. “While Kuno's habitat management and prey density [for lions] are really good, you need to be sure these communities are on-side, too,” says Shah. Even the imperfect tolerance of communities at Gir cannot be casually assumed for those around Kuno, who have a very different mindset.

“People, hoteliers, government, officers – everyone understands the importance of relocating lions for long-term conservation; it's just a matter of politics,” says Shah. Lions are the "pride of Gujarat" yet increasingly that justifiable pride looks short-sighted, if not blind.

Moreover, the numbers involved are small. “Six to eight to begin with; a couple of males every five years or so for about 25 to 30 years,” says Chellam. Nor does Kuno's limited tourism infrastructure – a modest Forest Department rest house overlooking the picturesque Kuno River – even vaguely rival Gir's panoply of upscale hotels and resorts.

“Nobody is really pushing [the translocation]. It's a complete stalemate; deeply disappointing and very frustrating,” says Chellam, with a sigh. “And what of the rule of law?”

Updated: July 26th 2021, 7:49 AM