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India: Gujarat goes to Supreme Court to keep its endangered lions

Relocating India's Asiatic lions could help spread the small population — or it might put the endangered big cats at risk.

Asiatic lion Gujarat 2 7 2013Enlarge
An Asiatic lion inside his open enclosure at the Kamla Nehru Zoological Garden in Ahmedabad, in India's Gujurat state, on March 23, 2013. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — The western state of Gujarat has appealed to India's Supreme Court in a bid to hold on to its small pride of endangered Asiatic lions.

The neighboring state of Madyha Pradesh won permission in April to relocate a limited number of the big cats from their habitat in Gujarati forests to a wildlife sanctuary across the state border — but Gujarat's government says the move could put the animals at further risk.

"Top carnivores have never been successfully translocated," the state said in a petition filed Monday, according to the Times of India.

That may be overstating the case, but it's correct in principle, Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of the India-based, non-profit conservation group Wildlife SOS, told GlobalPost.

“We looked into case studies from across the world and we concluded that translocation is difficult,” Satyanarayan said in a telephone interview.

In fact, the NGO found that only 16 percent of animal relocations proved successful. In other cases, relocated animals were killed by locals or wildlife officials after they preyed on livestock or attacked people, they fought their way back to their original homes, or they were killed in fights for territory in their new locations, Satyanarayan said.

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Already, conservationists have argued that a previous attempt to relocate tigers to Panna National Park, which is also in Madhya Pradesh, put those animals in unnecessary danger.

When the authorities pushed through that relocation, it was unclear that Panna had eliminated the poaching problems that may have killed off the park's original tiger population, critics alleged. As GlobalPost reported at the time, Panna had lost about 40 tigers to poachers over the five years leading up to the relocation.

Moreover, the relocated tigers had various problems adjusting to the new territory — resulting in dangerous clashes between the cats.

The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies which currently lives only in the Gir Forest of Gujarat. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images.

For the Asiatic lion, the stakes may be even higher. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the only surviving population of Asiatic lions has grown too large for the Gir Forest National Park, a 540-square mile preserve in southwestern Gujarat. As a result, around 100 lions live outside the preserve's boundaries, where they risk conflict with humans as the state modernizes.

Meanwhile, WWF argues, having all the remaining Asiatic lions in one location is itself dangerous, as it leaves the entire population vulnerable to an epidemic.

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The Supreme Court found those arguments convincing. In an April 15 judgment, the court ruled that some of Gujarat's lions would have to be relocated to Madhya Pradesh within six months' time.

“We are of the view that the various decisions taken by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) that the Asiatic Lion should have a second home to save it from extinction due to catastrophes like epidemic, large forest fire etc., which could result in extinction, is justified,” the court said, according to India's Hindu newspaper. 

But according to the state of Gujarat and to Wildlife SOS, that decision was founded on a faulty premise. Gujarat pointed out in its petition that the presence of tigers in the location selected for the lions in Madhya Pradesh could spell disaster, for instance.

Meanwhile, in its own survey of the Gir population, Wildlife SOS found that the lions were ranging far enough from one another that the threat of an epidemic is unlikely.

“We found that the lions are now spread across 10,000 square kilometers [3,800 square miles], not 1,400 square kilometers [540 square miles]. So the argument that they are all in one forest and could be killed by an epidemic is not relevant,” Satyanarayan said.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/india/130702/gujarat-asiatic-lions-madhya-pradesh