Dealing a blow to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's selfish attitude over the distribution of the endangered Asiatic or 'Gir' lion, the Supreme Court today empowered the union government to translocate some of these lions – now confined to the Gir sanctuary – to the Kuno Palpur wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
A bench of Justices K S Radhakrishnan and C K Prasad has given six months' time to the wildlife authorities concerned for relocating the lions from Gir sanctuary to Kuno Palpur reserve.
''The species, which is on the verge of extinction needs a second home,'' the apex court ruled in its decision on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by an environmental group seeking another home for the lion, unique to India, to Kuno to avoid extinction in case of a calamity or disease.
The court has constituted an expert body to decide the number of lions to be relocated and to closely monitor their translocation in Madhya Pradesh.
Arguing against trans-location, the Modi government said these animals were ''the pride of Gujarat''. But the apex court decided that their survival was more important than Gujarat's pride.
At the same time the Supreme Court nixed the probably ill-conceived idea of introducing African cheetahs into India, saying preservation of critically endangered native species like the wild buffalo and the Great Indian Bustard is more important.
The union ministry of environment and forests had come up with a Rs300 crore proposal – daft, according to most environmentalists – for a Cheetah Reintroduction Programme, under which African Cheetahs were to be imported into the country.
Cheetahs once abounded in India; and the Asiatic lion romped through the Punjab and up to the gates of Delhi. But environmental destruction put paid to the Indian Cheetah a century ago; and the Asiatic lion now lives in a small pocket where inbreeding has already changed some of its original characteristics.
Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are both governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but they have long been at loggerheads over the translocation of the Asiatic lions.
The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in MP had asked the Gujarat government for a few of Gujarat's lions, but Modi – fierce about protecting its only remaining natural treasure - had argued against the need to move the lions, saying that the Kuno reserve isn't suitable for lions as it is also home to tigers, and its weather and environment isn't conducive for their survival.
The Asiatic lion is listed as endangered by International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as it exists in a small, isolated population in Gujarat. Official figures say there are only around 400 Asiatic lions left.
The court said Asiatic lions were extremely endangered and all efforts against extinction should be tried, including translocation in limited numbers.
According to government data, 46 of the felines died in 2011and the same number in 2012. Out of this total of 92 lions dying in the past two years, 43 were cubs, 29 were females and 20 were males.