36 Gir lions to be back in jungle in India’s largest reintroduction operation

(Representative Image)
(Representative Image)

The Gujarat forest department will take up the country’s biggest and most challenging effort to reintroduce big cats from captivity to the wild now that 36 Asiatic lions suspected to be infected with canine distemper virus (CDV) have been declared fit to return to their natural habitat, according to officials familiar with the development.

The scale of this operation will be larger than ever before; no more than two big cats have been needed to be reintroduced from captivity to the wild at the same time, according to experts. Even for relocations from one wild habitat to another, the largest number at one time was six in Sariska between 2007 and 2012. “All 36 lions, housed in two groups at Jamwada and Devaliya rescue centres are fit. They will be released into the wild very soon,” Gujarat’s chief conservator of forest, Junagadh range, DT Vasavda, said. “We need to chalk out a detailed plan on how, when and where, the lions will be relocated. It will be a major exercise that will be done in phases.”

According to biologist Fayaz Khudsar, there have been no more than three or four cases of reintroduction of tigers in the wild.

Even then, in most cases, they were cubs rather than full-grown tigers, said Khudsar, who has worked in tiger habitats in Madhya Pradesh.

“The lions… would have become habitual to humans. They will have to be kept in a big enclosure to reorient them before releasing them in the wild,” explained Rajesh Gopal, secretary general of the Global Tiger Forum, who as head of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) monitored the relocation of tigers to Sariska and Panna.

The 36 lions suspected to be infected with CDV were moved to the two care centres last October following deaths of over 25 lions over a month. It was for the first time that the Gir National Park and Sanctuary, or any other wildlife habitat in India, saw such a big breakout of CDV. The virus that spreads from stray dogs was responsible for wiping out several hundred lions in East Africa in 1994.

Under the supervision of experts from India and abroad, three cycles of CDV vaccination were completed in four months, before declaring the lions fit. “Lions were quarantined as a precautionary measure,” Vasavda said.

The reintroduction task for the Gujarat forest department will not be easy as lions, like tigers, are territorial animals and take time to define and settle in their domain. Gujarat forest department officials and experts identified two challenges for the reintroduction — first the territories from where the lions were picked for treatment of suspected CDV have been taken up by new pride; second, finding new territories may be difficult considering that the Gir National Park and Sanctuary is now filled to the brim with about 600 lions, as per the state government’s latest estimate, despite losing 204 tigers in 2017 and 2018. Gir had 523 lions in 2015.

Vasavda said relocating all the 36 lions to their earlier home in Dalkhania range in Amreli district, where they belonged at the time of the outbreak of CDV last October, would be difficult. “We will not be able to relocate all of them back to Dalkhania range. We are looking at various options,” Vasavda said. The 1,400 sq km national park is divided into two zones and Dalkhania falls in the east zone, far away from the popular tourist attraction, Sasan, which is in the west zone.

AJT Johnsingh, senior ecologist and former Wildlife Institute of India (WII) scientist, said the relocation will have to be “done carefully” so that it does not result in “another conflict” in Gir. In 2018, 25 lions in Gir died because of territorial fights.

VB Mathur, director of the Dehradun-based WII, said the relocation of lions in Gir will be a learning experience for wildlife management as there are “no guidelines” on the release of wild animals given CDV medication. “Through this experiment, we all can learn important lessons for betterment of both species and habitat management,” he said.

According to a reply submitted in Gujarat assembly on Friday, 204 lions died in Gir in 2017 and 2018, including the deaths of 36 because of various viral diseases such as CDV and streptococcus, which spreads through highly contagious bacteria. (Hindustan Times)

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