Finding Refuge in India: The Relocation of Asiatic Lions or African Cheetahs

CI Team
The lion and cheetah in India - an overview
Veeville
The translocation of African cheetahs to Kuno-Palpur National Park has become a bone of contention for advocates of the lion and the cheetah.

Introduction

Rampant hunting and habitat loss changed the fate of two large Indian carnivores; the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) and the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), the latter of which was driven to extinction in India in 1952. The last and only population of Asiatic lions in the wild is now confined to the Gir Forest in Gujarat and its environs. For years experts have been urging the authorities to translocate a subset of the original population to a second home as insurance against calamities. However, although a second home was readied in the Kuno-Palpur National Park in Madhya Pradesh in Central India, it appears that the lions will have to wait. The selected and prepared habitat will now be used instead to house a population of African cheetahs in an effort to re-establish the species in India.

This article traces the histories of the Asiatic lion and the Asiatic cheetah in India and also how the Kuno-Palpur National Park has become a bone of contention for advocates of the lion and the cheetah.

Conservation of lions of Gir, Kathiawar

By the 1880s, free-ranging Asiatic lions were restricted to the areas in and around the Barda and Alech hills, Mitiyala, Girnar, and Gir forests in the Saurashtra peninsula of Gujarat. The 6th Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabatkhanji II, concerned by the dwindling number of lions (~70-100) banned all forms of hunting in his state with the encouragement of Lord Sandhurst, Governor of Bombay (Chavda, 2005). Fortunately, the perseverance of the various Nawabs of Junagadh to conserve lions ensured that they survived in Gir and rose to an estimated 287 by 1936 (Jhala et al. 2019). Subsequently, the Government of Independent India enforced a complete ban on hunting lions in 1955 and declared the Gir Forest a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1965.

The timeline of events on the history of lions and cheetahs in India and their relocation to Kuno National Park. (© Veeville)[/caption]

A second home for the lion

In 1993, all stakeholders, including the Government of Gujarat, agreed on the need to establish a second lion population as insurance against extinction. The Wildlife Institute of India conducted assessments and finally chose Kuno-Palpur National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, which is within the recent historical range of the lion.

Asiatic lion numbers improved in the Gir forest due to good protection and local community support in conserving them. However, the Gujarat government had a change of heart and decided not to part with ‘its’* lions for relocation to Kuno (Rahmani, 2013). Asserting that lions ‘belong’* to Gujarat and are a part of the state’s pride, the Gujarat Government opposed any plan to move even a few out of the state (Chavda, 2005, Jhala, et al. 2019). Rejecting this position, the Supreme Court of India, in 2013 (order number: IA No.100 in W.P (C) No.337/1995), directed the Governments of India, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh to reintroduce lions in Kuno-Palpur from Gir. Despite this order from the apex court, the Gujarat government has not proceeded with the lion relocation. In 2020, the Government of India announced Project Lion and identified seven sites, including three each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and one in Gujarat, for relocation (Kukreti, 2020). However, the project roadmap will instead focus on the natural dispersal of lions across Saurashtra and potentially to other states (Mazoomdar, 2022).

(*quotation marks are editorial additions and not from the source)

Why relocate lions to a new site?

In a 2012 interview with Conservation India, lion biologist Ravi Chellam (and member of the Supreme Court Appointed Steering Committee on lion relocation) cautioned, “It’s important to take pre-emptive action rather than wait for a disaster to strike.” He was referring to the long-term risk of having only a single lion population. “[the conservation of the lions in Gir] is a success story in the limited context of numbers having grown and extinction having been staved off for the time being. But, if you have to project it in the next twenty, thirty, fifty years—which is the timescale you need to do conservation planning, we are stuck with all our eggs in one basket.

Ravi Chellam’s concerns are valid and here are his main reasons why a second population is vital:

A. Disease
In 1994, a serious outbreak of the Canine-Distemper Virus (CDV) in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania resulted in the death of ~1000 lions (Roelke-Parker et al. 1996). Since CDV has been identified in feral dogs found around Gir, an epidemic of such magnitude in Gir could potentially wipe out the last wild population of the Asiatic Lion. As if to confirm these fears, in 2018, an outbreak of CDV and Babesiosis in eastern Gir killed 28 lions (Kateshiya, 2020; Jhala et al. 2019).

B. Lack of alternative habitats
At present, 30% of lions occur in human-dominated landscapes with varying degrees of conflict (Jhala et al. 2019). The Gujarat Government selected Barda Wildlife Sanctuary as an alternative habitat to Gir, but the PA is only 192 sq. km. While improving this habitat would be beneficial to local wildlife, it remains an unviable option as a secure home to a second population of Asiatic lions due to its small size and proximity to Gir (Jhala et al. 2019).

C. Natural disasters
With the advent of climate change, the incidence of extreme weather events has increased. The negative impact of such an event was felt during cyclone Tauktae in 2021, as 18 lions were reported missing from the coastal districts of Amreli, Gir Somnath, and Bhavnagar, which bore the brunt of the cyclone (Kaushik and Pathak, 2021).

The cheetah’s return to India

The question of reintroducing cheetahs to India has been around since Independence. In a Wildlife Board meeting in November 1952, there were talks of a ‘bold experiment’ to bring cheetahs back to India (Chavda, 1999). In 2009, the Government of India announced the Cheetah Reintroduction Project and began exploring the possibility of introducing African cheetahs to India. In 2021, an Action Plan (Jhala et al. 2021) was announced, highlighting the details of the project. According to news reports in July 2022, cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa are slated to arrive in India very soon (HT Correspondents, 2022; Koshy and Haidar, 2022).

The primary site of cheetah reintroduction will be Kuno Palpur National Park. The other sites recommended for conservation breeding of cheetah are Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary – Bhainsrorgarh Wildlife Sanctuary complex) in Madhya Pradesh; Shahgarh landscape in Jaisalmer and Mukundara Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. Initially, 12-14 (8-10 males, 4-6 females) individuals will be housed in Kuno. The cheetahs will be kept in a predator-proof fenced enclosure (about 6 sq. km) to allow them to acclimatise. All the introduced cheetahs will be fitted with radio collars and their daily movements will be tracked and monitored. The carrying capacity of cheetahs in the larger Kuno landscape is estimated to be 36 individuals (Jhala et al. 2021), with newer individuals to be introduced from southern Africa on a timely basis over the years.

Divided opinions

Kuno-National Park for lions or cheetahs?

Chellam (2022a, 2022b, 2022c) has questioned the logic and the rushed manner in which cheetahs are being brought to Kuno-Palpur National Park while ignoring the order of the apex court to relocate lions. He further adds that the introduction of the cheetah will only delay the relocation of lions as the relocated cheetahs would need time to establish a viable population. The conservation priority of the state agencies involved in the translocation has been questioned as the case for relocation of Asiatic lions is stronger than that for cheetahs. The cheetah introduction plan has not been mentioned in the National Wildlife Action Plan including the current plan for the period 2017-2031, while the translocation of lions has been a national priority since the 1950s. He has also criticised the goal of cheetahs performing their functional role as a top predator (Jhala et al. 2021) since Kuno and its surrounding areas can only hold a small population, which would have to be intensively managed.

The cheetah as a flagship of the beleaguered Indian grasslands

Since British rule in India, open forests and dry grasslands have been regarded as ‘wastelands’. This paved the way for these unique habitats to be converted to accommodate expanding agriculture, townships, rails and roads, solar/wind power plants etc. Moreover, these habitats are presently being used for afforestation schemes further endangering them.

One of the stated objectives of the cheetah reintroduction project is to ‘use the cheetah as a charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and savanna systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems’. (Jhala et al. 2021).

Surendra (2020) supports the proposition: if done right the cheetah can be effectively used as a flagship species to conserve neglected grasslands and the communities that depend on them. He states that the solution lies in legitimizing the grazing commons and allowing grassland species to utilize these habitats along with livestock and pastoralists. These legitimate commons could serve as crucial habitats for threatened wildlife and also protect the livelihoods of marginal pastoral communities.

However, Madhusudan and Vanak (2021) argue that since the reintroduction site is in an existing ‘forest’ protected area, the claim of conservation of grasslands using the cheetah is questionable. The Protected Area network covers less than 5% of grasslands and open habitats. There is also a lack of a coherent policy on the management and conservation of these habitats. For example, the loss of grassland habitat has led to a precipitous decline in the range of the Great Indian Bustard, one of the most critically endangered birds in India and globally.

Conclusion

The goal of any conservation plan is to safeguard free-ranging wild populations in their natural habitats for an extended period. Lions were once saved from extinction due to timely action. But plans for their second home are presently in limbo while authorities busy themselves welcoming the African cheetah to Kuno.

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