The Gujarat government has proposed a second home for Asiatic lions in Gujarat at Barda Wildlife Sanctuary, about 100 kilometres away from their current home at Gir National Park, finally moving forward with a long-delayed plan to relocate some lions from the country’s only and very crowded home, a move that would also protect the population from diseases.
According to a senior government official familiar with the situation, the project has received preliminary approval from the central government. To be sure, Barda is also in Gujarat, which makes the decision easier for a state that values lions and is unwilling to share them with other states.
A report on “Lion@2047: A vision for Amrutkal” , prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India for Gujarat government, has identified Barda as a potential site where a population of 40 adult and sub-adult lions can be accommodated in the larger landscape of Barda-Alech hills and coastal forests.
“Activities to prepare this sanctuary for future natural dispersal will be taken up. Herbivore population augmentation through breeding activities will be taken up. A large part of Barda is covered by thick Acacia Senegal – thickets of Gorad, which does not allow easy penetration of herbivores. This may be removed and replaced by sparse vegetation,” said the report, a copy of which has been reviewed by HT.
State forest department officials said Barda is a natural second home for lions moving from Gir, which is overflowing with the big cats. Barda, established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1979, has since been projected as an alternative second home for the lions in Gujarat.
On January 18, 2023, a radio-collared male lion of about three and a half years old entered Barda Sanctuary, demonstrating that the sanctuary can easily become a second home for lions, according to officials.
“The lion, which was radio-collared so to track its movement and activities, was sighted in Mota Jungle Beat in Ranavav Range of Porbandar Wildlife division. The lion is still in Barda, after almost two months, indicating that it has found a safe haven there,” said one of the officials.
The last time an Asiatic Lion was sighted in Barda was in 1879, nearly 144 years ago.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day Speech on August 15, 2020, announced Project Lion and shared the government’s resolve and commitment to work for the long-term conservation of Asiatic lions in the country.
According to the officials, the Gujarat government will implement Project Lion with some financial assistance from the Centre. “Earlier, the total budget for project lion was about ₹2,000 crore however it was re-worked to ₹1,000 crore. The Centre will soon roll out Project Lion,” said a second official.
Barda can become alternative home for lions. For this, the government and forest department will have to work towards habitat improvement and also improve the prey base in the region, maybe by introducing Sambar Deers. Also, the Maldhari community will have to be resettled and a proper compensation package will have to be worked out for them,” said a member of the National Board for Wildlife and an expert on Asiatic lions, speaking on condition of anonymity
The Project Lion document also proposes voluntary relocation of Maldharis or pastoral communities to create “inviolate space” of lion habitat of approximately “1000 square kilometres” in Gir and Barda. “As a result, an appropriate rehabilitation package for incentivized relocation would need to be worked out and offered to all forest dwellers within the wildlife sanctuary to relocate outside with hand holding and additional perks that may be available from the Gujarat state government,” the report stated.
Jalpan Rupapara, a lion researcher, welcomed the move to rehabilitate Maldharis.
There are number of Nesses (human settlements) in Gir protected areas that are a huge burden on the ecosystem. There are at least 22,000 cattle inside the protected areas, predominantly buffaloes of Madharis. These cattle are a major competitor to wild herbivores for food resources in Gir. With Maldharis being rehabilitated outside the protected areas, Barda has the potential to become second home for lions,” said Rupapara.
The Gujarat forest department estimates that the lion population in the state now would be more than 700, half of which are outside Gir. Lions are distributed in nine districts of Saurashtra including Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli, Bhavnagar, Rajkot, Botad, Porbander, Jamnagar and Surendranagar. They are spread across an area of 30,000 square kilometers which is termed as the Asiatic Lion Landscape.
There has been a call for a long time to find second wild home for Gir Asiatic lions. Almost two decades ago, the Centre decided to translocate some lions to build second independent population of Asiatic lions at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Gujarat needed to relocate some of its lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh to avoid the possibility of disease or some other disaster wiping out the entire population. The Gujarat government did not translocate the lions to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh citing concerns of their co-existence with the tiger and the difference in the climatic condition of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. In August 2022, eight cheetahs from Namibia were introduced at Kuno and the park got 12 more from South Africa in February this year.
Uday Vora, a former chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Gujarat, said the population of Asiatic Lions has more or less stabilised in the Gir sanctuary even as a greater number of lions are seen outside the protected areas. “Though bit late, developing Barda as a new home for lions, is still timely. The lion population is rising by the day and this is pushing a large number of them outside Gir. Lion centric habitat management which includes thinning of the forest cover in Gir would increase the carrying capacity inside the protected areas.”