Lion conservation efforts in the Indian state of Gujarat have been so successful that a new sanctuary will be opened to house the abundant numbers of big cats.
Gir national park is home to the world’s only Asiatic lion population and the only place outside Africa where a lion can be seen in its natural habitat.
The number of the endangered animals has risen so high – with about 400 in Gir and 300 in other parts of the state – that Gir has been overcrowded for years. Lack of space has forced lions to stray into villages and coastal areas.
Conservationists have been pleading with the Gujarat government to move some lions to other parts of India to give those in Gir enough breathing space. Keeping so many of one species in the same place also makes the animal vulnerable to infectious diseases.
But the state government has resisted the demand, prompting criticism it is being possessive about the lions to the point of disregarding their best interests.
Authorities resisted a 2013 supreme court ruling ordering them to move some lions to a sanctuary in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. The ruling said a move was essential to prevent a disease from potentially wiping out the entire population.
Now Gujarat has said some lions will be moved out of Gir, although only to another place within the state, Barda Wildlife Sanctuary. The new home will take about 40 lions and is being prepared for its new residents.
Officials told local media the herbivore population was being increased and some of the thickly forested areas, displeasing to lions, would be pruned to make the vegetation sparser.
For Anish Andheria, the president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, this is yet another “misleading gimmick” by Gujarat to avoid sharing the lions with other Indian states. He said some of Gujarat’s lions, both those in Gir and elsewhere, had already moved into Barda in search of space and criticised the government as touting an existing fact as a new solution.
“Formally announcing Barda as a new lion sanctuary may lead to more funds and better management of the area, but it will not relieve the pressure on Gir. In fact, if Barda is made more lion-friendly, the lions will breed even faster there and the population will grow even further,” said Andheria.
For India to have even more lions, he added, was good news, but the only meaningful solution was for lions to be moved to other parts of the country. Only this would make it possible to move lions out of Gir and also out of the other areas of Gujarat to give them the space they needed.
“But Gujarat doesn’t want to do that,” said Andheria. “It does not want to share the lion with other states. It wants to keep the lion for itself to enjoy the status of the only state in India that has lions. That’s why it keeps coming up with these frills and cosmetic changes that are no solution at all.”