India is privileged to be home to 15 species of wild cats which is a world record as no other country has this many species of wild cats. We used to have 16 species till about the early 1950s when unfortunately due to hunting the Asiatic cheetah became locally extinct within our national boundaries. A small population of Asiatic cheetah currently exists in Iran. It is the diversity of habitats that India has (from hot deserts to cold high altitude deserts, from high Himalayan mountains to a long and diverse coastline, from rain forest to scrub forest and much more), coupled with our unique biogeographical history that has resulted in this high species richness. It is not often known even to Indians that India is home to five species of large cats, Indian tiger, Asiatic lion, snow leopard, common leopard and clouded leopard.

I have been involved with research and conservation of the Asiatic lions since 1985. I studied the lions in and around the Gir forest, Saurashtra peninsula, Gujarat for my Ph.D. and have since had a student follow up on my research. My research aimed to generate current knowledge of  predation, ranging patterns and social organisation of the lions to inform the planning of a translocation effort to establish additional free-ranging populations of Asiatic lions in India.

The lion roars

Credit: Kalyan Varma

My days in Gir are amongst the most enjoyable I have had in my career. These were tough and hard times in terms of the amount of physical effort, social isolation and relatively low financial rewards but I wouldn’t trade those days for anything! I lived and worked amongst the lions and other wildlife and experienced and observed so many unique events. I have spent many days and nights observing lions on a kill on my own. Once I fell asleep on the forest floor in a sleeping bag and woke up to find a lion cub sitting on my legs. I was aware that the mother (lioness) and other members of the pride were close by and hence had to move carefully to get the cub off my feet without startling it or its pride mates. The lions in Gir offer extremely close access. I largely worked with them on foot. I have had the privilege of hearing and feeling them roar at very close quarters, close enough to feel their spittle on my face and to smell their bad breath!

Lion cubs

Credit: Kalyan Varma

The Asiatic lions had a close brush with extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  According to reports their numbers were as low as between 12 to 20 lions. Hence it is a remarkable achievement that in a little over 100 years the population of lions has increased to 523 as per the last census conducted in 2015, of which 173 lions were present in human-dominated habitats outside the Gir protected area.

Lions at Gir

Credit: Kalyan Varma

This conservation success is largely due to the tolerance as well as conservation support rendered by the local communities as well as the good wildlife management by the Gujarat Forest Department with support from the Government of India. The lions co-exist and interact a lot with the local human population. This includes maldharis (livestock graziers) who live within the protected area as well as the villagers who are largely agriculturalists cultivating the lands around Gir Forest. While cattle predation by lions and leopards are pretty common occurrence, it is remarkable how low the lion attacks on people are and the tolerance and acceptance by the local people of the lions in their daily lives. The current challenge is to build on this conservation success.

communities coexisting with the lions

Credit: Kalyan Varma

The lion population in and around Gir is the sole surviving population of Asiatic lions in the wild. While their numbers are increasing, so are the threats to their survival as a significant number of lions exist outside the protected area but more importantly this situation is akin to having all your eggs in one basket. Diseases are known to have a rapid and deadly impact on lions. In 1994, the Serengeti lion population was decimated by a canine distemper disease outbreak. One-third of the population, i.e. approximately 1000 lions, died following this epizootic in a matter of weeks. The Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania spans over 30,000 and in 1994 had about 3,000 lions. The Gir ecosystem is well under 2,000 and has under 550 lions which closely interact with many species of domestic animals which carry a wide variety of diseases. It is not rocket science for us to recognise the grave threats that the lions are currently facing. Additional populations of lions which are geographically separated from the Gir population are essential to safeguard their long-term future.

Proactive conservation thinking laid the foundation for my field research in the mid-1980s and the subsequent follow up work identified Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh as the site suitable for establishing a second free-ranging population of lions. Since 1995 much work has gone into preparing the area for the lions. Unfortunately short-sighted political wrangling has delayed this conservation initiative. This is despite a Supreme Court order of April 2013 which mandated the translocation to be done within 6 months with the support of an expert committee of which I am a member.

In December 2016 the committee held a meeting at Kuno. Most of us were satisfied that the site is ready to host lions.  It was decided that the details of the lions to be captured in Gir and moved to Kuno need to be worked out speedily while the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department worked with the State government to officially expand the size of Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. It is nearly a year since then and it is very frustrating that there has been little movement.  As the Wildlife Week 2017 draws to a close today, I remain optimistic and eagerly look forward to hearing the lion’s roars resound through the forests of Kuno.

List of wild cats found in India:

1.   Indian Tiger

2.   Asiatic Lion

3.   Snow Leopard

4.   Common Leopard

5.   Clouded Leopard

6.   Asiatic Golden Cat

7.   Caracal

8.   Marbled Cat

9.   Eurasian Lynx

10.   Pallas' Cat

11.   Fishing Cat

12.   Jungle Cat

13.   Leopard Cat

14.   Desert Cat/Asiatic Wildcat

15.   Rusty-spotted Cat

Ravi Chellam is the Executive Director at Greenpeace India