By Vaibhavi Pedhavi ~ Gujrat National Law University, Gandhinagar.
The present case was filed in the Supreme Court to seek an order ensuring the translocation of Asiatic Lions from the Gir forests to the proposed alternative site at Kuno, Madhya Pradesh. However, the Gujarat government refused to this proposal as they opined that there was no necessity to create a new Asiatic Lion sanctuary. The honourable Supreme Court, in this case, allowed the plea of the petitioners and prioritised the protection of the species.
Facts of the Case
The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) which comes under the Ministry of Environment & Forests (hereinafter referred to as MoEF) is involved in researching with respect to better management of the Gir forest, which is the sole habitat for Asiatic Lions in the world. The research highlighted the necessity for a second natural habitat for Asiatic lions with the objective of long-term conservation of the species. In October 1993, a meeting was held at Baroda wherein the same was discussed and three alternative sites for relocation were suggested as follows:
A) Darrah-Jawaharsagar Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan
B) Sitamata Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan
C) Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh.
WII’s Research Advisory Committee conducted a field survey of the three aforementioned sites with sufficient consideration to all the necessary factors for the relocation of Asiatic Lions. After the survey, the committee found that the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh was the most suitable site for the reintroduction of Asiatic Lions. Accordingly, a report was made highlighting the rehabilitation plan. After this report, the State of Madhya Pradesh undertook a massive rehabilitation package for the relocation of Asiatic Lions in the area and obtained the permission from MoEF under section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, for which18 villages were rehabilitated.
In the year 2004, the Government of India constituted a monitoring committee for the implementation of the said project. This project was conceived in three phases; however, it was observed that the State Of Gujarat stated was uninterested in cooperating. Meanwhile, MoEF sent a detailed proposal of the project to the Gujarat Government, but Gujarat Government’s Tribal Affairs, Forest and Environment Ministry objected to the relocation of Asiatic Lions to Kuno. This matter was referred to the Supreme Court, and the court directed them to submit the proposal before the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
NBWL convened a meeting with Gujarat state’s minister for Wildlife and Environment and informed them about the steps that had been taken for the relocation project at Kuno. The government of Gujarat raised few issues and submitted a detailed report highlighting the measures taken by them for protecting Asiatic Lions. Furthermore, the additional PCCF (WL) of Madhya Pradesh pointed that the state had already relocated 24 villages from the sanctuary for this project, and therefore, requested that the lions should be translocated to Kuno at the earliest. Finally, NBWL proposed for the translocation of Asiatic Lions from Gujarat to Kuno, which was unanimously accepted. However, the government of Gujarat filed an affidavit objecting to the translocation of lions. The NBWL held a meeting, and the representatives of both states were present. After taking into consideration the various arguments put forth by all the parties, NBWL authorised MoEF to file an affidavit before the Supreme Court. The Government of Gujarat also filed a detailed affidavit, which specifically highlighted the issue of insufficiency of prey base at Kuno.
- Was there a necessity to relocate Asiatic Lions, which is an endangered species from Gir to Kuno, Madhya Pradesh?
- Whether the State of Gujarat is liable to translocate the Asiatic Lions from Gir National Park to Kuno for the reintroduction of the endangered species?
- Whether proper research and study had been conducted by researchers for the effective implementation of the project?
Summary of Arguments
1. Arguments on behalf of the Applicants:
Shri Raj Panjwani, who appeared on behalf of the applicant, submitted that the project of translocation of Asiatic Lions to Kuno was delayed due to the indifferent attitude of the Government of Gujarat. Furthermore, he submitted that environmentalists around the world have unanimously advocated for the translocation project keeping in view the long-term survival and preservation of the species. He also pointed out that the NBWL has also granted technical sanction for the project.
Ms Vibha Datta Makhija, who appeared on behalf of the State of Madhya Pradesh, highlighted the steps taken by the MP government for the project. The counsel further submitted that necessary sanctions had already been obtained for the translocation project at Kuno in 2002 for which a separate Kuno wildlife division was created, and the area was increased to 1268.861 sq.km. for successful implementation of the project. For rehabilitation purposes, the Government of India granted Rs.1545 lakhs, which was utilised by the Madhya Pradesh government. The learned counsel pointed out that 24 villages and 1543 families were relocated and the abandoned lands were developed into grasslands. Relying on the independent study by WII, the learned counsel further submitted that Kuno had sufficient prey base for the lions and adequate training had been given to the forest staff for monitoring Asiatic Lions.
Additional Solicitor General, Shri. P. K. Malhotra submitted that there were conceivable threats to the survival of Asiatic Lions at Gir even though their numbers were increasing. He pointed out that there were other challenges like epidemic outbreaks that could wipe out the entire population of lions due to the limited geographical space at Gir. Shri. Malhotra also referred to the studies conducted by WII and Wildlife Trust of India wherein the proposal was made for the reintroduction of Cheetah, which was to be imported from Namibia to Kuno and submitted that the same would not affect the relocation to Kuno.
Shri P. S. Narsimha, the learned counsel, submitted the court that this was a matter of extreme urgency for the protection of Asiatic Lions as they were included in the Red List prepared by IUCN. Reference was made to Article 48 & Article 51-A of the Constitution of India wherein it was pointed out that the state has to protect and improve the environment. He pointed out that the translocation of Asiatic Lions should be treated as a priority as there was a need for an alternative home for the survival of species. He submitted that the plans have legislative force as held in Lafarge Umiam Mining (P) Ltd. v. Union of India.
2. Arguments on behalf of the Respondent:
The State of Gujarat was represented by learned Counsel Shri Shyam Divan who refuted all the contentions by the applicants and submitted that there was no need to relocate the lions. He reiterated that the Asiatic Lion population had been adequately protected in the Gir forests and adjacent sanctuaries of the Gir forest in Gujarat. He submitted that due to the efforts of the Gujarat Government, the number of Asiatic Lions has gone up, and therefore, there was no need for immediate translocation of Asiatic Lions. Further, he submitted that no proper plan had been made for the successful reintroduction of the species at Kuno. Mr Divan referred to section 12 of the ‘Wildlife (Protection) Act’ and submitted that the translocation should be to an “alternative suitable habitat”. He also submitted that Kuno was not a suitable alternative habitat to the species like Asiatic Lions due to various factors such as the presence of tigers, poaching, climatic condition, etc.
After considering the submissions made by all the parties in this case and noticing all possible steps that had been taken by the state of Madhya Pradesh, Ministry of Environment, and Forests and the Union of India, the honourable Supreme court held that Kuno wildlife sanctuary was fit for the reintroduction of Asiatic Lion along with the approval of NBWL.
The Supreme Court indicated that the top priority is to protect endangered species of Asiatic Lions. Therefore, the decision of MoEF, for the introduction of both the African Cheetahs and Asiatic Lions at Kuno was arbitrary and violated statutory requirements under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Therefore, the suggestion of MoEF to introduce African Cheetahs was quashed.
The two-judge bench gave importance to the translocation of Asiatic Lions and decided that reintroduction should be done as per IUCN guidelines and with the active participation of the experts in this field. The court also recommended constituting an expert committee consisting of senior officials of MoEF, Chief wildlife Wardens of both MP and Gujarat, and the experts in the field. The committee was to assess the density of the prey base and other factors for relocation at Kuno.
The court highlighted the necessity for a legislation to deal with the preservation and protection of endangered species, which would give directions to the Government of India in the matters of preservation of endangered species. The court directed the Government of India & MoEF to identify all the endangered species and study their needs to establish a secure habitat for them. The court emphasised on the need for providing attention to the implementation of recovery programs, which would be carried out with the commitment of courts and environmentalists.
This case highlighted the necessity to protect the Asiatic Lion, which is an endangered species in India. By prioritising the protection of endangered species and directing the Gujarat government to provide assistance in the relocation process of Asiatic Lions, the Honorable Supreme Court has contributed towards the development of environmental jurisprudence, which paves the way forward for the lower courts. Apart from Asiatic Lions, the court also focused on the relocation and detailed research of other endangered species in India. This case serves as a testimony to the fact that the judiciary in India is extremely cognizant and cautious about the conservation and protection of endangered species.
 2013 8 SCC 234
 Lafarge Umiam Mining (P) Ltd. v. Union of India (2011) 7 SCC 338.