On the bumpy track that weaves across a baked landscape towards Kuno National Park, 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 Persia and the Indian subcontinent. In 2017, with the formal classification of lions simplified into just two subspecies, they have 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 state. They’ve been listed as “endangered” on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List since the mid-1980s and, according to a June 2020 census, the population stands at 674, a 29 per cent increase in five years.
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 then princely Junagadh state’s nawabs and officials stepped up concerted 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 suggested 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, viral illness – particularly canine distemper (CDV) – is a real concern. In autumn 2018, over two dozen lions died in one forest pocket, most if not all from CDV, although local authorities pinned some of the blame on natural infighting. Last year, more died from babesiosis, a tick-borne parasite.
Chellam, who’s held top country director roles at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme 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.
Unlike their African cousins, Asiatic lions are forest dwellers and live mainly on deer. While a handful have become trapped in farmers’ wells or been killed by trains, lion-human conflict and human fatalities are relatively rare. If anything, it is the lions’ 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 early February shows a lioness casually sauntering up and over the barrier of a Junagadh hotel car park for a 5am wander, just feet 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. Yet, 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…
Read More: the controversy surrounding India’s big cats