They are mostly forgotten today, but Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) once roamed in vast numbers across the Indian subcontinent, Mediterranean and Middle East until overhunting brought them to within a hair's breadth of extinction. By 1907, when an Indian prince finally banned hunting and protected the last lions, only 13 members of the subspecies remained. Today, after more than a century of conservation, the population of Asiatic lions stands at a high of around 400 animals, all of which live in and around the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Gujarat, just a few kilometers from the Arabian Sea. The animals are now so identified with their sole remaining habitat that they are usually referred to as Gir or Gujarat lions.
But the success in restoring the Gir lion population has brought new challenges to conservation efforts. The lions have outgrown their protected sanctuary and share their habitat with more than 100,000 people who live in the villages surrounding the forest. The lions occasionally kill livestock, enter people's homes and, very rarely, attack or kill humans. More often, the lions themselves are killed or injured when they come into contact with crude, deadly electric fences built around farms or fall into any of the tens of thousands of roughly hewn open wells in the region. Earlier this month a female lion fell into a well and suffered broken teeth and other injuries. (For more on these wells, see my article in the November 2011 issue of Lion magazine.)
Because there is very little space for the lions to grow into, many conservationists and the Indian government think the smart thing to do is to transfer some of them elsewhere. Such habitat diversification would serve to protect the Gir lions from a catastrophic disease outbreak, fire or other natural event that could wipe the subspecies out—a threat for any species that only exists at a single location. The most frequently discussed destination for translocated lions is the Indian state of Madya Pradesh (MP), where the recently restored Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary contains ample habitat and prey for any relocated predators.
Unfortunately, the idea of moving lions to Kuno doesn't sit well in Gujarat. Despite the occasional conflicts between humans and animals, the people of Gujarat are fiercely proud and protective of their lions. Many fear that MP will not adequately protect the cats. They may have reason to worry: MP has an extremely poor record of protecting its tigers, with 453 deaths in the past decade. (India's Bengal tiger population dropped from 3,700 animals in 2002 to around 1,500 in 2011, mostly due to poaching.) The two state governments have been arguing for a few years and relations hit a low point last week when Madya Pradesh's tourism department started using images of Gir lions on its Web site, even though there are no lions in the state yet and may not be for years to come.
Some lion advocates worry that MP is not serious about conservation. Kishore Kotecha, founder of the Wildlife Conservation Trust of India, which is dedicated to preserving Asiatic lions, says he used to think that some lions should be moved to MP but now he isn't sure. "Do they really want it for conservation purposes or do they want it for tourism?" he asks. MP, for its part, has invested millions of dollars restoring the habitat of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary for the flora and fauna already there and says the lions, too, would be fully protected.
Luke Hunter, president of the wild cat conservation organization Panthera, thinks some of the objections to moving lions from Gir may come more from pride rather than science. "Gujarat has done an extraordinary job of saving the Asiatic lion," he says. "They think no one else can do the job they've done, and moving them would just increase the risk to the lions." But he says the lions have reached the threshold of what they can do naturally at that location and have very little habitat in Gir that they can recolonize.
Hunter, who has two decades of experience moving African lions to new habitats, says selectively removing some Asiatic lions from Gir would not affect the population size in the forest. "We know enough from 20 years of African translocations to selectively remove individuals from Gujarat that would otherwise represent losses or mortalities," he says. "Whatever lions you remove just creates more space for the remaining animals." Panthera is not involved in Gir, but Indian experts consulted with Hunter 16 years ago when they first started thinking about translocation.
Hunter says the experience gained in southern Africa, where more than 500 lions in more than 40 different populations have been successfully relocated, shows that any translocation in India has a decent chance of success, especially when combined with the knowledge gained in Gujarat over the past century. "Gujarat needs to be congratulated, but now let's transfer their expertise and make sure that lions persist in India regardless of how they do in Gujarat. There's no good argument for not looking at that second or third population site."
But even as the two states debate the issue, Gujarat is making its own efforts to create a second Asiatic lion population to avoid the risk of any potential catastrophic events. "Gujarat already has started development of another home for lions at Barda Wildlife Sanctuary, which is about 200 kilometers away from Gir," Kotecha says. As many as eight lions are due at Barda as early as August of this year, after the annual monsoon season.
Will that be enough? "This is very good, but what's next," Divyabhanusinh Chavada, a member of the National Board for Wildlife in India, told Daily News & Analysis last month. "The lions are happily multiplying. Today, they are 411, tomorrow they'll be 500. Where will they go next?"
That's a good question. India's human population hit 1.2 billion last year, which doesn't leave much room for big cats. But no matter what, India remains passionate about its lions—and for now, they aren't going anywhere.
Photos and courtesy of Kishore Kotecha. Used with permission