Yes, yes, I know I had promised to write about my adventures in Gobar Goho’s akhada this week but I can’t help but interrupt the series and celebrate this… Palpur Kuno is finally going to get its own lions!
After all these years of lobbying and litigation, those at the helm of this leonine resurrection have finally managed to pull it off. I have been doing my bit for the cause, mind you. Putting in a good word here and another one there, and now that it is finally going to happen, I feel that this victory is as much mine as it is theirs.
For a long time now, wildlife activists have been fighting for the cause of establishing a new home for the Asiatic lion. The Gir sanctuary in Gujarat, the last home of the Asiatic lion is bursting at the seams with lions today. There are just far too many of them for their own good in the park. Humanlion conflicts, territorial fights in the overcrowded confines of the sanctuary and the ever-present threat of disease or disaster wiping out the last surviving population of this great predator have made it imperative that a new home be found for the lion.
But for those not in the know, all this euphoria over shift ing a few big cats a few hundred kilometers might seem rather misplaced. So let me break it down for you by taking you back to how it all began…
Once upon a time, as recently as the 20th century, three subspecies of lion roamed and ruled the earth. The African lion in sub-Saharan Africa, the Barbary lion in North Africa and the Asiatic lion whose reign extended from Asia Minor and across the heart of India and right up to the plains of Bihar.
The lion in those days was a king indeed.
Proud and brave, he strode over thorn and bush and over the great plains and the grassland, his great maned head held high. But alas his pride spelt his doom, for in open country, the lion became easy game for rifle wielding trophy hunters who wiped out the Barbary lion from all over its range in the Atlas mountains.
In Asia, the big cat fared little better. Hunted to extinction across most of his reign, the beginning of the 20th century saw the last dozen or so Asiatic lions cowering in a small pocket in Junagadh. These lions too would have gone the way of the Barbary lion and into extinction if the Nawab of Junagadh, would have had his way when he invited Lord Curzon for a lion shoot.
However, when Lord Curzon realized how critically endangered the lions happened to be, he politely refused to shoot and urged the Nawab to protect the lions. And so, at a time when there were 10 to 25 rupees bounties on wild animals like tigers and lions across most countries and even in India, Junagadh had already begun its march towards conservation.
The years rolled by and now, Gir is home to more than 400 lions. Besides issues of overcrowding, the fact that all these lions have emerged out of a small gene pool of a handful of lions, makes them perhaps a trifle more vulnerable to diseases and epidemics that could wipe out the entire population of Gir lions. For this reason, it would be akin to committing ecological hara-kiri if efforts weren’t made to sprinkle the lion population over different geographical zones.
Wildlife bodies set the ball rolling in the right direction and identified Palpur Kuno in Madhya Pradesh, a habitat that was once part of the Asiatic lion’s range, as the ideal reintroduction site. However, the big cat’s home state, Gujarat, wasn’t so keen on sharing its pride and refused to give up its lions.
However, just about two days ago, the Supreme Court directed the state of Gujarat to release a few lions for them to be reintroduced into Kuno. This is the first step for the lion in reclaiming its old lands and a much needed shot in the arm for conservationists struggling to protect the lion.
Incidentally, Palpur Kuno, the place ear-marked for the reintroduction of lions has also been shortlisted for a cheetah reintroduction project. The Asiatic cheetah, now found only the desert regions of Iran was once abundant in India. Along with hunting, habitat-loss and loss of prey base, one of the most unique reasons in the history of wildlife extinctions has to be the trapping of wild cheetahs to be trained as hunting assistants in royal hunts. Nawabs and other royalty would keep trained cheetahs in their hunting stables even as recently as the 1940s. One can still find archival films that have captured these hunts. Hooded and carried on bullock carts, these cheetahs would be released near a herd of unsuspecting blackbucks and then a spectacular high-speed chase would ensue, often resulting in the cat tripping and biting the animal’s neck in an effort to strangle the animal. Meanwhile the nawab’s hunting attendants rush to the fallen buck and dispatch it by slashing its throat with a knife. The cheetah is rewarded for its efforts with chunks of meat from the kill. Unfortunately, these cheetahs did not breed in captivity, and by 1947 India had lost her last cheetah.
Since, the Iranian subspecies is too vulnerable and the African cheetah is genetically identical to the Asiatic subspecies, Laurie Marker, the Jane Goodall of cheetah conservation has suggested that India should reintroduce African cheetahs to restore the world’s fastest land mammal to the Indian landscape. The transfer was supposed to have happened last year but the Honourable Supreme Court of India suspended the project, urging the Ministry of Environment and Forests to first focus on the successful reintroduction of our own Asiatic lions to Kuno.
While I find the idea of seeing cheetahs racing across the plains extremely exciting, not only is the court order ethically pertinent but also environmentally sound. To first introduce cheetahs to a habitat, allowing them to flourish at the very top of the food chain unimpeded by its greatest natural enemy, the lion and then once it has settled in, to suddenly shock them by releasing lions into their territory could potentially destroy both the cheetahs and the reintroduction project.
On the other hand, cheetahs brought in from Africa would know the rules of engagement as far as lions are concerned. When eased into an ecological framework which already has lions in it, the cheetahs would make the transition naturally and co-existence, in the long run, especially with Asiatic lions not familiar with cheetahs, a far greater possibility.
As things stand today, sooner or later, the plains of Kuno should be reverberating with both the roar of the lion as well as the charge of that spotted streak of greased lightning. And with the forests of Kuno also serving as corridors for tigers wandering in from nearby Ranthambore and packs of wolves, as well as a healthy prey base, this little known park could soon become the most exciting wildlife hotspot in the country. After the terrible lows of Sariska and Panna, here’s to some exciting new chapters in India’s intriguing romance with her wildlife… Cheers to that!