Why translocating Asiatic lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh is a disastrous idea
Jahangir, the Mughal emperor, was a prolific hunter, one who hunted far and wide. His memoir – Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri – meticulously accounts his exploits between the age 12 and 50. Out of the total 17,167 hunted, 3203 were quadrupeds of all kinds – tigers, antelope, swamp deer, cheetahs, bears etc.
One prominent animal conspicuously absent from this record is the lion.
Jahangir's hunting expeditions were just an example. Similar records of accomplishments of all royal and aristocratic families before and after him, with the distinct addition of the British, show that lion was far less hunted than the tiger in the vast swathes of forest that India was home to. In addition to the unrestrained hunting and habitat loss, did other factors such as competition with tigers for the same prey and territory accelerate its demise? We will come back to this.
Now in 2012, scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad published a landmark research paper titled 'Genetic evidence of tiger population structure and migration within an isolated and fragmented landscape in northwest India'. The research established a healthy dispersal and migration of tigers between Ranthambore tiger reserve in Rajasthan to Kuno-Palpur and Madhav national park in Madhya Pradesh. The research is significant also for the lions in India, for it establishes the credentials of the argument against the proposed translocation of lions from Gir in Gujarat to Kuno-Palpur.
Forest corridors are critical for the long-term survival of wild species, enabling their dispersal and migration and upholding their genetic robustness.
It is critical for tigers of Ranthambore to migrate and remain connected with the central Indian tiger landscape. Their only way is southeast via the Khandar range and Keladevi sanctuary, across the Chambal river into Kuno-Palpur (only a few KM away), and via Kuno-Palpur into Madhav National park (MNP) and further still, towards the Panna and Bandhavgarh tiger reserves.
Consider these few extracts from the CCMB research paper:
· "We could determine significant gene flow between RTR and MNP".
· "We have ascertained tiger presence in Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary and Madhav national park, and established their genetic connectivity with the animals of Ranthambore tiger reserve".
· "Such dispersal and subsequent reproduction are crucial for the maintenance of long-term genetic health in small fragmented populations".
· "These forests are extremely important to national conservation strategies".
The corridor of Kuno-Palpur is a veritable jugular vein for the tigers of Ranthambore. The diagram below demonstrates the proximity of the two reserves.Can a lion and a tiger co-exist in the same habitat competing for territory, prey, dominance? Has a scientific and historical analysis of this aspect ever been made? Will there be
a conflict? The MP government has nonchalantly shrugged off this concern, and that is where the danger lies.
Ecologically speaking, both tigers and lions are migrants into Indian forests.
The lions arrived in India much earlier than the tiger, i.e. about 20,000-30,000 years ago. They were found in northern, western and central India.
The tiger arrived into India approximately 12,000 years ago from the north and northeastern Asia.
Having evolved to be apex predators both are naturally designed for dominance and hence conflict would be inevitable in case of overlapping habitat.
Those who dismiss this concern, point out that lions kill other lions all the time, same with tigers, how then is a lion-tiger conflict going to be any different, they ask. What is overlooked is that in this inexhaustible cycle of nature, elimination is followed by procreation – ensuring propagation of dominant genes, while in the case of a tiger-lion conflict, no procreation would follow – a disruption of the natural cycle.
It is not as if no evidence exists to give legitimacy to this concern.
In 1955, the widely-respected journal of the Bombay Natural History Society carried an article in its Vol 53, titled "Experiments in implanting African Lions into Madhya Bharat" wherein disastrous results of an effort by the Maharaja of Gwalior to introduce lions into tiger territory were produced. The experiment was a total failure – an important observation was of lions being killed by tigers. Later, the author of the article, Kesri Singh, in a book opined that tigers had a role to play in the disappearance of the lion in India, being direct competitors
Several noted authors have also opined likewise, vis-à-vis lion-tiger conflict: Richard Perry in The World of the Tiger, 1965, Jack Denton Scott in Speaking Wildly, 1966, Franklin Russell in The Hunting Animal, 1983 Kenneth Anderson in The Call of the Man-Eater, 1961.
There is much additional rationale in opposing the move, including its legality.
The Supreme Court ordered that the translocation must be strictly in accordance with IUCN guidelines. It might be falling short of several, such as
Guideline 1: There should generally be strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous extinction have been correctly identified and removed or sufficiently reduced
Problem: The entire RTR-KPWLS-MNP landscape is a hostile human matrix – poaching, high prevalence of licensed and unlicensed firearms, fragmented forest corridors due to encroachments, rampant illegal sand and stone mining. Hence, threats such as habitat loss and killings that caused the previous extinction are still clearly present. The tiger-lion conflict issue compounds the threat.
Guideline 2: Where a high degree of uncertainty remains or it is not possible to assess reliably that a conservation introduction presents low risks, it should not proceed, and alternative conservation solutions should be sought.
Problem: A high degree of uncertainty does remain – viz the conflict with tigers compounded by concerns of inadequate prey-base, a hostile human matrix, uncertainty over the migration of lions and their acceptability once population expands etc.
Guideline 3: Human communities in or around a release area will have legitimate interests in any translocation. These interests will be varied, and attitude of the community can be extreme and contradictory. Consequently, translocation planning should accommodate the socioeconomic circumstances, community attitude, and values.
Problem: While MP has done a fine job of relocating villages from within Kuno-Palpur sanctuary, has anyone talked to or sensitised the population on the Rajasthan side, which has a smattering of hundreds of villages, which would have lions right in their backyard? Irate villagers around the Khandar range often confront hapless forest officials when tigers venture into their farms or villages, has anyone asked their opinion about having lions within a few kilometers in a few years? No.
Guideline 4: There is a risk of hybridisation with closely-related species or subspecies; this may possibly result in a lower fitness of offspring and/or loss of species integrity. This should be included in risk assessment
Problem: This is especially pertinent given the presence of tigers, and is also related to the potential of conflict. Has any study been made of lion-tiger conflict or competition in the same habitat? No.
The move does not sit in consonance with these and many other guidelines. Now, how can an order in violation of its own mandate get implemented?
This translocation might be more flagrantly violative of IUCN guidelines than any other.
Notwithstanding this, and Gujarat's genuine reservations regarding the insufficiency of total area of the Kuno-Palpur sanctuary, inadequacy of prey-base, prevalence of firearms, poaching, a highly hostile human matrix that surrounds the Kuno landscape or India's infancy in the expertise required in handling re-introduction of endangered species, if translocation does go ahead, as with all ecological disasters, the damage would only appear in the long term.
The Supreme Court has not been made fully aware of the importance of Kuno-Palpur as a migration corridor for tigers and the threat of lion-tiger conflict.
I am not against a second home for Asiatic Lions per se, although they seem to have already made a third, fourth and fifth home in Savarkundla, Palitana, Mahua, Girnar etc. By all means pursue it, in a feasible place, but not Kuno-Palpur. Because sandwiching lions between tigers would endanger both.