Pride is in numbers: We saved Gir's Asiatic lions, but is it enough?

  • Poulomi Banerjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 08, 2015 09:03 IST

In December 2014, journalist Nick Kirkpatrick reported on a change in a certain tribal tradition in Africa in the Washington Post. The third annual Maasai Olympics which gave the young men of the tribe an opportunity to exhibit their prowess in running, throwing a spear and a club, and high jump, was an alternative to lion hunting - the traditional skill that marked a man from a boy. Though government-backed sanctuaries have existed across the African continent for years, with the king of the wild in danger, the Maasai Olympics, by seeking to put an end to the tradition of lion hunting, shows the common man's concern for conservation. In India, the nawab of Junagadh, say conservationists, took the lead in the shift from lion-hunting to nurturing, sometime at the turn of the 19th century. The initiative begun in Junagadh continued over the years, and today, Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat is the only place where Asiatic lions survive in the wild.

A population estimation of lions in Gujarat released by the state recently shows a 27 per cent increase in their population between 2010 and 2015. "Asian lions once had an extensive distribution from Palestine in the west to Palamau forest in the east. In India, they were found in most of the modern north Indian states. Indiscriminate hunting by monarchs and British rulers was one of the major reasons behind local extirpations of lions from many parts of India. Owing to their social organisation and behaviour, lions were more easily visible to hunters as compared to tigers and leopards. Then followed an era of rapid destruction of lion habitat patches owing to demand for agriculture and timber. By the 1880s, lions got restricted only to the Gir forest of Gujarat and their numbers were dwindling," explains Kausik Banerjee, a researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India.

Changing Course

The low point, according to data available with the forest department of the Gujarat government, was 1968 when the lion population at Gir dwindled to a mere 177. "Since then, the lion population at Gir has been increasing at an annual rate of 2.2 per cent," says Banerjee. Not everyone though is convinced that the number of animals in the wild can be counted with such precision. "It is at best an estimation, not a census. The results here are far too precise for my liking," says conservationist Ravi Chellam, though he agrees that even as an estimate it does show a trend towards growth in numbers. This is an especially praiseworthy feat at a time when the lion population in Africa is on the decline. "Recent analyses established that the African lion has lost at least 75 per cent of its original habitat, with fewer than 35,000 wild African lions remaining," says Banerjee.

Much of the credit for the Indian success story, according to principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Gujarat SC Pant, goes to the local people or Maldharis. The government too has taken care of its pride. Gir was declared a sanctuary in 1965. Subsequently, an area of 258.71 sq. km was declared a national park. "Some of the landmark actions undertaken by the Gujarat Forest Department (GFD) include gradual resettlement of local pastoral communities outside the protected area (PA), water management, habitat management, weed eradication and planting fodder species with high nutritional values," says Banerjee. "The wild prey population went up from a density of about three per sq. km in 1973 to about 50 per sq. km in 1993. Protection and surveillance using updated technologies available; network system for informants in human dominated landscapes outside the PA and wildlife health monitoring are some of the other steps that have been taken." The increase in population - the status of Asiatic lions was changed from critically endangered to endangered in 2008 - is a direct reflection of these efforts. But as conservationist Meena Venkataraman questions: "Is conservation only about increasing numbers?"

What's in a number?

In a published article titled Conservation of Asiatic Lions: Where Do We Go Now, Venkataraman writes, "The population growth has also resulted in increased movement, dispersal and establishment of lions in natural habitat patches outside the PA." According to the 2015 census, the growth in the number of lions outside the PA was much more than within the PA. As Venkataraman writes, "It is evident that the continued survival of lions depends on people's tolerance and at the same time, protection of lions from poaching, accidents, retaliatory killing, and diseases."

Accounts of man-lion conflict in Africa are not rare. The two legendary maneless lions of Tsavo were responsible for killing 130 people. A pride in Tanganyika killed 1,500 between 1932 and 1947. Cases of lion attack on humans have also been reported at the Kruger National Park. In comparison, the lions in Gujarat have been living in relative harmony with local inhabitants. "Currently, lions outside the Gir PA mostly predate on nilgai, wild pigs and unproductive surplus cattle. Lions' predations on productive livestock units are minimal and the GFD pays compensation for such cases," says Banerjee. The locals have also been involved in the conservation process. "Three hundred young people from across the villages have been chosen as Vanya Prani Mitra and are paid Rs 1,000 each per month to inform us if a lion enters a village and to engage the other villagers so that the animal is not injured. Rescue centres are spread across the lion habitat," explains Pant.

There is, however, a tolerance threshold for most people. In 2012, an English daily reported of a lion attacking and preying on a 50-year-old man in Gujarat. In the paper, Lion-Human Conflict In The Gir Forest, India, Vasant K Saberwal, James P Gibbs, Ravi Chellam and AJT Johnsingh analysed 193 attacks by lions on humans between 1978 and 1991. Venkataraman writes that in the decade that the lion population has spilled outside the PA, livestock depredation has increased. Human-animal conflict aside, open wells, railroads and electricity cables are some of the other threats that the animals encounter when they venture too close to human habitation. The Gujarat government has not lagged in rising to the occasion. "Twenty-five thousand wells in Gir and outside have been given high walls to prevent accidents. After six lions died due to rail accidents outside the PA in Rajula area in Amreli district, trains were speed regulated, fences are being constructed along the tracks and underpasses below the tracks for the animals to move safely," says Pant.

Looking beyond Gir

Even with so much monitoring, there is a threat. "It's the case of putting all your eggs in one basket. One disease outbreak or disaster of some kind can wipe out the entire population," worries Chellam. Studies have identified domestic dogs as a major source of rabies and canine distemper outbreak. That apart, as Venkataraman points out in her article, lions are social animals and, being territorial, need adequate space to survive. "The Gir PA (about 1,880 sq. km) with the current prey base seems to have attained its maximum capacity to support lions. Currently, lions occupy about 22,000 sq. km of human-dominated landscapes of the adjoining districts outside the Gir PA. But Saurashtra is experiencing a change in traditional land-use patterns and crucial lion habitat patches are succumbing to such changes," rues Banerjee.

Demands to create a second habitat for Asiatic lions have been gathering strength. Some have identified the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary near Porbander for the project, while others feel the choice to be inappropriate because of its proximity to the source population. In 2013, the Supreme Court passed an order in favour of introducing lions to the Kuno Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. A group of wildlife experts headed by Ravi Chellam and A JT Johnsingh had earlier studied comparable sites based on habitat requirements of lions to chose Kuno Palpur as the most suitable. However, as Palpur is also home to tigers, some have wondered at the two predators sharing the same space. "There are very few examples in history of tigers and lions in the same area so it is difficult to know what might happen in a place like Kuno. In my opinion, after watching tigers for 40 years, the tiger will have the advantage over the Gir lion," says conservationist and author Valmik Thapar. Meanwhile, says Dr Pant, the Gujarat government has set up a task force to evaluate the situation. Till it submits its report, one can only hope that the pride of Gir does not fall prey to forces beyond the control of its protectors.

(Graphic: Mukesh Sharma; Source: Gujarat state Forest Department)

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