Rising number of lions, India's pride
India's efforts to increase the Asiatic lion population have been a roaring success. The latest lion census reveals that the number of lions in the country has grown from 411 in 2010 to 523 this year, a 27 per cent increase over a five-year period. In 1975, when the first lion census was undertaken, their numbers stood at 177. India has done well to bring the Asiatic lion back from the brink of extinction. Till the beginning of the 19th century, Asiatic lions roamed proud and free in a vast expanse of land stretching from Morocco and Greece across Turkey, Syria and Iran to eastern India. But hunting of lions, tigers and cheetahs, which grew in popularity with the invention of guns, proved to be the big cats' undoing. The number of Asiatic lions dwindled and they became extinct in Turkey by the end of the 19th century and in Iran in the 1960s.
As the 20th century dawned, lions in India were to be found in Gujarat only. Since then, it is only in the Gir forest that the Asiatic lion is found in the wild. A ban on hunting and other measures have played a role in increasing their numbers. While the Indian and Gujarat governments deserve applause for their efforts, there are issues that need urgent attention. Several problems loom with a rapidly growing lion population. The Gir forest is getting overcrowded and lions are fighting each other in territorial conflicts. As their numbers grow they are moving to surrounding villages. Lion-human confrontations are rising in and around the Gir.
There is a need to give lions more space to stretch their limbs and hunt their prey. Could the land set aside for the Asiatic lion in Gujarat be increased?
Wildlife experts warn that the concentration of the Asiatic lion population in Gujarat could jeopardise their future. An epidemic or natural disaster in the Gir region could wipe out the entire lion population. An outbreak of canine distemper killed 3,000 African lions in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. It was to avoid a similar disaster in India that the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in favour of translocation of some of Gir's lions to Kuna Palpur in Madhya Pradesh. Unfortunately, the Gujarat government, in its misplaced enthusiasm to retain sole custodianship of the Asiatic lion, refused to part with its lions and has filed a petition challenging the court's decision. Increasing the number of lions isn't enough. They must be made less vulnerable. Their future must be secured too.