The Asiatic lion needs a second home, so they can be kept secure from any possible epidemic breakout in the present single habitat of Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat. After various field surveys a team of wildlife scientists proposed Kuno Wildlife sanctuary as a second home for them. Of late, lions have become a topic of great debate within the wildlife world, when the apex court directed the Gujarat government to introduce lions in the new proposed home within a six month period.
Almost 350 sq. kms forms the core of the Kuno sanctuary and this is encircled by 900 sq. km of buffer. Madhya Pradesh government in an exceptional manner relocated 24 villages from the core area and settled them outside the park. The habitat of the core improved remarkably in terms of forest cover and prey base especially. The entire landscape of the core area has shown significant improvement but that is not the case with the whole of Kuno. If you ever drive through this area, not a single bird may come your way; that is the impact of poaching in the region and the table top of the Vindhya hills. I went into this area for the first time for an anti-poaching raid, with the Rajasthan police to arrest a top poacher- Devi Singh Mogya, living in the buffer area of Kuno; he had poached 5 tigers from Ranthambhore. Many families of the Mogya hunting tribe live here. Few years back they killed a forest guard within the sanctuary & this was the second forest staff killing in a 5 year period. Naturally this effected the morale of the forest staff in the area. However, the poachers are not the only problem, there are the dacoits and bandits, who are using these Mogya’s to track the forest and this criminal connection makes the Mogya’s more dangerous. Kuno is a hotspot for dacoits and there is at least one gang in the area at any given point. Last month Ranthambhore Forest Department’s tiger tracker returned from the area while monitoring a tiger, as some dacoit gang had beaten and looted local people.
Two years ago a Ranthambhore tiger moved to Kuno sanctuary and he is still residing there, one more tiger has moved there this year. In the last two years, Ranthambhore has got 26 cubs, out of these, 6 more sub adult male tigers are about to leave their mothers. There is a fair chance of more tigers moving towards the Kuno area, which is just across the Chambal River. The Chambal is only 6 inches deep in the summer period at many points which makes crossing it easy for a tiger, who are known to swim across deep waters if necessary.
With the introduction of lions in the area we have no idea what tigers and lions will do when they meet and how officials will avoid this unnatural conflict. I have seen apathy towards tigers by the officials of Kuno recently, when the second tiger moved toward Kuno from Ranthambhore. They are not welcoming the movement of tigers towards Kuno, which is natural and necessary for these mighty species. A few efforts alone can change the scenario of tiger conservation in central India, while even a full tip to toe effort towards lion introduction in the area will make it dubious and a disaster for the introduced lion, as well as a worldwide mockery.
Some wild lifers have doubts that we cannot keep lions safe in the Kuno area, with present ground realities. As for the lions, they are great nomads, their young males move long distances covering up to 200 km. Unlike the tiger they roar loudly, which can be heard from a distance of about 4-5 km and make them detectable for poachers. I remember my friend Nimesh mentioning that during a survey in north-east India, he reported that Hoolock gibbons attracted hunters because of their songs or calls. Furthermore, they are not elusive cats like the tiger or leopard; lions are big cats of open forests and live in a group, preferring to kill large cattle, hence they are more prone to conflicts with livestock keepers. The risk increases when the community is not pro wildlife conservation, like the Maldhari community of Gujrat. Management of tiger in Kuno type forest is comparatively easier, due to its elusive nature. There are 4-5 areas like Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Madho Shivpuri National Park, Datia forest, Shahbad forest, etc. which surround Kuno and are suitable for the tigers, who are the natural apex predators of the region. Indeed if there is tiger in Kuno, it would connect these 4-5 tiger areas in the future. Hence, it is important to see some other landscape for the lions instead of Kuno and there needs to be a special effort to protect tigers which may be relatively easier due to the nature of the species. We need to look at the larger interest of the species in our country but also practical conservation solutions.
Written by Dharmendra Khandal
Dr. Dharmendra Khandal holds a PhD in Botany and is a Conservation Biologist based in Ranthambhore, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. He is part of Tiger Watch, an NGO that works with conservation and anti-poaching in the area. The views expressed in this article are solely Dr. Khandal’s own.