Once considered harmless, Asiatic lions are attacking people living in the periphery of the Gir National Park – India’s only reserve for the big cats. Consequently, 18 of the beasts have been taken into captivity, and local residents have sought the government’s permission to kill them in self-defence.
This is yet another instance of rising animal-human conflicts in the country, something that the Centre has tried to resolve by branding wild beasts as vermin and allowing local residents to kill them.
Taking cognisance of three such attacks that occurred over the last two months, forest officials are now capturing lions from the wild and housing them at the Jasadhar Animal Care Centre. The latest such incident at Gir occurred on June 7, when a farm labourer – Raiya Rabari – was attacked by a lion while he was sleeping at his farmhouse in Kodinar, Gir Somnath district.
Until a few months ago, lion attacks were considered a rare occurrence in this area. In fact, villagers would consider them divine, and feel honoured if the majestic beasts paid them a “visit”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described them as the “pride of Gujarat”, and even turned down a proposal to relocate the animals to Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh.
All that has now changed.
Around 100 farmers from Kodiya village have submitted a memorandum to local officials, requesting that the administration capture and relocate three prides – nearly 30 lions – that have made this area their hunting grounds. They have received support from the political class, including members of the ruling BJP, who have suggested that residents be allowed to carry firearms for “emergencies”.
According to the Wildlife Protection Act, an endangered animal such as the lion can be killed only by a professional hunter – and that too after it has been declared a maneater.
On the other hand, the under-staffed forest department has been struggling to control the spread of lions. With the steady rise in the population of big cats, nearly half of the 523 lions in the Gir region live outside the 1,412 square-km sanctuary.
Wildlife experts say one of the main reasons for lions straying out of the sanctuary is shortage of prey on account of illegal mining and thinning of forest cover. “Lions attacked us while we were plucking lemons from our orchards,” said Lakha Vala, one of the 100 farmers who signed the petition.
However, Dhari range deputy forest official T Kurrpaswamy dubbed the lion attacks as “accidental” cases. “But as we don’t know which of the lions (if any) have turned maneater, we have captured 18 of them,” he said.
The forest department is yet to decide when to release them back into the wild.
Bhikha Jethva, president of Lions Nature Club, has rejected calls by those favouring the culling of lions – including local BJP leader Dileep Sanghani. “Giving guns to locals is no solution. That way lions will no longer be safe in Gujarat or anywhere else in India. Instead, the government should strengthen the grossly understaffed forest department,” he said.