ON WEDNESDAY, when the Supreme Court said that the death of 23 lions in three weeks in Gir was “very serious,” the Additional Solicitor General assured the court that he would “find out” details of the deaths. And added that a matter related to lions was already pending in the court. What was left unsaid was the fact that more than five years ago, the Supreme Court, in a prescient order, had called for shifting some lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh to set up a second home for the endangered species “to save it from extinction, due to catastrophes like epidemic” etc.
But a series of objections raised by Gujarat and foot-dragging by both Environment Ministry and Madhya Pradesh Forest Department ensured that hasn’t happened. Asiatic lions are now found only in Gujarat where their population jumped from 411 in 2010 to 523 in 2015.
Crammed for space, a number of prides have ventured out of forests and occupied areas as far as in coastal Gujarat. In many areas, they opportunistically scavenge for food and share space with feral dogs blamed for spreading Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) to African lions that killed nearly half the population in the mid-1990s.
Indeed, scientists at Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Virology (NIV) have officially confirmed presence of CDV in at least four samples that were tested. For over two and a half decades, experts have been warning against “having all the eggs in one basket” in India.
“Irrespective of the number of eggs, you will lose all if you drop the basket. A second home for lions outside Gujarat is a must insurance for the species. It’s over five years now that the state is getting away with violating a Supreme Court order,” said Ravi Chellam, biologist and member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee on the matter.
Constituting the expert committee in April 2013, the Supreme Court had set a six-month deadline for shifting lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh. A prolonged delay led to a contempt petition which was discharged by the apex court in March 2018 after the Environment ministry assured that it would hold a meeting to expedite the project. It’s been another six months since.