Asiatic Lions in India — The Plans, the Pauses, and the Eventual Hope Under Project Lion

In an attempt to create a safe range for Asiatic Lions, one of the endangered species in India, Project Lion raises a ray of hope for the lion survival.

The Asiatic Lion, also called the India Lion, was historically found in the regions of the Middle East and Western Asia, extending up to northern India. Today this endangered lion species is only found in India.

Asiatic lion family at gir national park, gujarat, india

History of Asiatic Lion in India

Asiatic Lions once roamed freely in the West and South Asia. But at the start of the 20th century, the lion population was only restricted to Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Gujarat. It was in 1893 that the population of the lion came down to only 18 due to the lack of conservation efforts. What followed was importing African Lions cubs and even relocating one male and two female lions to Chandra Prabha Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh. Both attempts failed because of a lack of systematic monitoring and inadequate education of the local folks. In 1986, the Wildlife Institute of India began its study of the Asiatic Lion and collected data like its habitat range and feeding habits. It was noted that the lion posed a danger from the large and wild herbivore animals like chital and sambar. Nonetheless, conservation efforts bore fruit. And in 1994, the lion population increased to 284. But this was not enough. Considering the ever-increasing population of lions, a workshop was held by the Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) of Asiatic Lions in 1993 that proposed new sites for the translocation of lions across India. Of the proposed sites, the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary (Madhya Pradesh) was found to be the most suitable. Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary (Rajasthan) and Barda Wildlife Sanctuary (Gujarat) were found to have unsuitable terrain and limited water supply. Sites like Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary (Rajasthan) and Darrah - Jawahar Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary (Rajasthan) were rejected due to human interference and lack of prey population. 

The Kuno Palpur Sanctuary was then surveyed, and a project of re-introduction of lions was laid out in three phases. 

  • Phase 1 (1995-2000) - Inhabitants of the twenty-four villages will be shifted out of the Kuno Palpur Sanctuary. This phase also included habitat improvisation.
  • Phase 2 (2000 to 2005) - During this period, the actual re-location of lions would take place. This followed by fencing the lion site. 
  • Phase 3 (2005 to 2015) - During these ten years, eco-development of the region, research, and monitoring will follow. 

The state of Madhya Pradesh was ready to receive the lions and was fully committed to it. In April 2002, a separate wildlife division was created and an area of 1,268 square kilometres was allocated for the lions inside the Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Gujarat Opposes

On 10 March 2004, the monitoring committee set up by the Government of India introduced the framework of the Lion Introduction Project. In the same year, when the translocation of the first pride of 19 animals was due, the then Gujarat government refused, stating that the lions were the "heritage of the state." The State Forest Minister at the time - Mangubhai Patel went on record to say, “there is no need to shift lions from Gir. We will ensure their survival here.”

Over the next ten years, the opposition from the Gujarat government continued. This forced the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department to procure zoo-bred Asiatic lions along with their offspring and settle them in Palpur-Kuno.

India’s Highest Court Steps In

But in April 2013, the Supreme Court of India came to the rescue. It acknowledged that the translocation of the lions to Palpur-Kuno is in the best interest of the animal species. It also rejected the Gujarat government's objections and ordered them to help with the translocation in the following six months. This was not very well-received by the Gujarat government, and what followed was years of filing petitions against the translocation of Asiatic Lions. In 2015, the Government of India accepted that Madhya Pradesh will have to expand the size of its wildlife sanctuary from 349 square kilometres, doubling its size to 700 square kilometres. This would mean the relocation of many big villages. The Madhya Pradesh government was not very keen to undertake this project. The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department mentioned that the buffer zones surrounding the sanctuary make up the total required 700 square kilometres but was not keen on identifying the buffer zones as a part of the protected area. As of December 2017, the Madhya Pradesh government had given up acquiring the lions from Gujarat. 

Six more sites identified for lion relocation apart from Kuno-Palpur by the Indian Prime Minister under Project Lion

After having publicly declared his opposition to the translocation of lions, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and the now Prime Minister of India - Narendra Modi, has given a go-ahead to translocation of Asiatic Lions out of the Gir Forest and into the proposed zones. Apart from the already talked about Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, six new sites have been identified under the Project Lion. This project was launched on August 15, 2020, following the success of Project Tiger in India. The Wildlife Institute of India, together with the Gujarat Forest Department, has proposed these new sites all over Central and Western India. The sites include Jessore-Balaram Ambaji WLS and adjoining landscape (Gujarat), Madhav National Park (Madhya Pradesh), Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary (Rajasthan), Sitamata Wildlife Sanctuary (Rajasthan), Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary (Madhya Pradesh), and Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve (Rajasthan). 

The project was introduced in the wake of the report from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, which states that the Asiatic Lion in India is facing the threat of extinction from epidemics due to the lack of genetic diversity. 

Currently, a total of 674 (a 29% increase from 523 lions in 2015) Asiatic Lions live in India and are spread only over an area of approximately 30,000 square kilometres. An increase in the range of the habitat to the other Indian states under this project will ensure advanced world-class research and veterinary care through modern technology. The project will also address the ongoing conflict between humans and wildlife by the successful relocation of villages that come under the protected areas. 

However, the Gujarat Forest Department is yet to carry out the Supreme Court order from 2013, which directed the translocation of Asiatic Lions to Kuno. 

Arjun Sharma

Arjun Sharma

Jeevoka member since Dec 2020