Translocation under Project Lion; previous papers suggest Barda may be too geographically close, may not be able to hold so many Asiatic lions
The Gujarat government has planned to translocate 40 adult and sub-adult lions to the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary in the state, according to a new report by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) under the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change.
Barda sanctuary, about 100 kilometres away from Gir National Park, has been identified as a potential site to accommodate the Asiatic Lions, said the report entitled Lion@2047: A vision for Amrutkal. As per the last count in 2020, there are 674 lions in the state and Gir has long been overflowing with the big cats.
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Experts have demanded translocation of lions in India for the past two decades as the big cats have been geographically isolated in Gir. A second home would protect the lion population from extinction in case of diseases like the Canine Distemper Virus leads to their deaths.
The Supreme Court of India in 2013 had also ordered relocating some lions to Madhya Pradesh; however, 10 years later, the transfer has not yet happened.
Carnivore populations restricted to single sites face various extinction threats from genetic and stochastic environmental factors, said a 2014 paper by WII under Y V Jhala, prominent wildlife expert and conservationist.
“Catastrophes such as an epidemic, an unexpected decline in prey, natural calamities or retaliatory killings could result in their extinction when they are restricted to single populations,” stated The Assessment of Barda Landscape for Reintroduction of Asiatic Lions.
The central government has given in-principle approval to the project, as the state of Gujarat does not wish to share the Asiatic lions with other states of India, stated a report by daily Hindustan Times. Around 700 Asiatic lions are in the Gir region — the only known range of the big cats now.
Asiatic lions are currently found in nine districts of Gujarat, including Junagadh, Gir-Somnath, Amreli, Bhavnagar, Rajkot, Botad, Porbandar, Jamnagar and Surendranagar, falling under the Saurashtra region. They are spread across an area of 30,000 square kilometres.
The new report vouched for the relocation of 40 lions to Barda Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS). However, the 2014 report stated that the WLS can only hold 26 lions due to several factors like low prey base and small size of the Bards WLS (192 sq km), which is not big enough for 40 lions.
The old report also identified habitat refuge patches in the Barda landscape of 410 sq km, which is critical for supporting breeding lion nuclei in future.
“Combining both the agro-pastoral part of the landscape and Barda sanctuary; we estimate that at best the Barda landscape can support between 26 and 35 lions after restorative inputs,” read the 2014 report.
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Gir and Barda are too geographically close to make the latter a solution for creating an alternative lion habitat in the country, said an August 2019 research paper Asiatic Lion: Ecology, Economics, and Politics of Conservation published in journal Frontiers.
“A lion population in Barda cannot be considered as a security from catastrophic events like disease epidemics in the Gir landscape due to the geographic proximity of both areas and continuous presence of feral dogs, cats, and livestock in the intervening habitat,” stated the paper.
Barda, therefore, cannot be an alternative solution to lion reintroduction in Kuno, it clarified.
The new report, however, stated that activities will be taken up to prepare Barda WLS for future natural dispersal and the herbivore population will be increased through breeding activities.
The Gujarat Forest Department has made centres such as Barda, Rampara Wildlife Sanctuary and Sakkarbaug Zoological Garden to diversify the gene pool, the new paper added. The centres will be “strengthened and the objective of maintaining a pool of heterozygous genetically diverse individual lions will be served.”
The state forest department may identify more sites for the rehabilitation of the lions, Lion@2047 further said. The Sakkarbaug Zoo shall be upgraded and developed further for breeding programmes, maintaining stud book records for the reproduction registry.
There would be further encouragement of ex-situ conservation efforts of lions in other parts of the country as well.
The report also talks about creating groves by making small patches of evergreen trees like Vad (Banyan or Ficus benghalensis), Jamun (Syzgium jambolanum) and Karamada (Carissa carandas) and augmentation of water works in Barda.
Members of the Maldhari community will also have to be relocated along with the big cats as it is important to restore around 1,000 km of ‘exclusive lion habitat’ under Project Lion through incentivised voluntary relocation of forest villages.
Maldharis are local pastoral communities settled within Gir Protected Areas and the Barda WLS. The report also talks about providing ‘an appropriate rehabilitation package for incentivised relocation’ to the communities.
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Meanwhile, forest officials of the state department have refused to share the report with the media, citing limitations on their part. As a result, several details of the paper remain unclear.
“We are not authorised to share the report,” said Deepak Mittal, an Indian Forest Service officer in Gujarat, who was a member of the team that prepared the report. However, he told Down To Earth that the project would most likely take off only next year.
DTE reached out to experts Jhala and Ravi Chellam for their views on this move. Both do not have a copy of the new report either and said it would be wise to wait until they get to read it in detail.
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