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Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Barkheda, Madhya Pradesh is underway to become India’s second home for the Asiatic lion. The species, whose only refuge in the country has been Gujarat’s Gir forest, numbered in 523 in 2015. To prevent decline—and possible extinction—in a single habitat due to natural disasters, epidemics, decline in prey or retaliatory killings, an action plan is being implemented to relocate a number of lions to Kuno, a former royal hunting ground.
The first phase will see two prides of lions make the over 1,100-kilometre journey from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh. Each pride typically holds one male, three to five females and their cubs.
Kuno’s habitats have been fine-tuned for these new entrants with abundant populations of herbivores like nilgai, chital, sambhar and chinkara, who are the lions’ natural prey. The big cats will hunt alongside existing predators like jackals, leopards, hyenas and wolves inside the sanctuary. Geographically, Kuno also features the same kind of semi-arid vegetation in Gir, as it is under the same biogeographic zone. This should make the transition more seamless for the lions.
The goal of the action plan is to create a self-sustaining population of 80 lions, which could take up to 30 years. Former villages have been relocated and replaced with large, unused and almost human-free grasslands. These are meant to allow for flexible movement without any human-wildlife conflict.
The introduction of lions at Kuno is happening 29 years after it was first proposed. However, it’s not India’s first attempt at creating new populations for conservation. Our first was in the 1960s, at the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh. The programme had then failed due to lack of planning about prey, habitat, local attitudes and post-release monitoring.
But things look optimistic for Kuno. “Not a single incident of poaching and human-animal conflict has been reported in the last three years,” a senior official of the sanctuary told Mongabay India. Between 1996 and 2001, 24 villages were shifted outside of Kuno into Karhal to make way for the lions. Villagers were reportedly sympathetic to the greater good, and formed the Kuno Sangharsh Samiti for symbiotic interests. The organisation has worked to ensure that the lions were reintroduced in time in return for them giving up their ancestral lands. The Samiti also wants to involve their youth in the program as field guides, as tourist footfall is bound to rise after the lions settle in.
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