To save Gir lions, all development has to be eco-sensitive
The Gir forest and its adjoining areas is the last home of the majestic Asiatic lions. The deaths of 23 lions between September 12 and October 1 and three on October 22 have rattled everyone. According to a report by the Indian Council for Medical Research, canine distemper virus was responsible for the deaths. This unfortunate incident is a good opportunity to understand and evaluate the broader social, economic, population and habitat related challenges that are putting a lot of stress on the animal population of Gir, and also their habitat.
The lion population in Gir has increased over the years: According to the 2015 census, Gir has 523 lions, including 109 male, 201 female, 73 sub-adults, and 140 cubs. The territorial and social nature of the big cats have led to the formation of new prides outside the Gir Protected Area (GPA), where sporadic forest patches and good prey base are available to the big cats. In fact, 40% of the lion population has been recorded outside GPA — which is 1,200 sq km — in an expanse of 12,000 sq km. This rise in population is not only putting a lot of stress on the area’s ecology, but increasing the chances of man-animal conflict.
There has been an unprecedented tourist footfall in GPA since 2007, specifically after the “Khusboo Gujarat Ki” campaign. The forest department gives out 50 passes per trip in three batches every day — apart from a separate facility at Devaliya Safari Park that has semi-wild conditions — for visiting the park. This is proving to be inadequate for tourists.
While the growth in tourism is heartening, it is leading to construction of hospitality units — many of them illegal — near the Sasan-Gir area. This is disturbing the forest corridors that lions use for their movement. The landholding pattern of the area is also changing with farmlands giving way to farmhouses and guest houses. In fact, in many villages near Sasan, the going rate is Rs 25 lakh per acre. Most of the buyers are urban non-farmers from other districts. This has also made adjoining villages a hub of commercial human activities.
These developments have upset the traditional delicate balance of coexistence, which communities like the Maldharis of Gir had evolved over centuries.
The new landowners love adventure and perhaps nature too, but they have little knowledge of the local ecology compared to farmers. For example, a farmer would never disturb or be unduly perturbed by the presence of a lion. He will never start taking selfies and announce to the world the presence of a lion. For him, it’s just a neighbour visiting his farms and sparing him the duty of guarding his fields at night. He also knows the lions’ temper and so maintains a respectable distance.
This man-animal coexistence has been practised for ages in this part of the peninsula, helping the lion population to grow. Lion expert and a member of the National Board for Wildlife, HS Singh, feels that the large carnivore population is surviving due to the surplus cattle available in the countryside and the tolerant attitude of the farmers. This tolerant attitude towards all life forms — even at the cost of personal economic loss — is an important learning for all of us. Thanks to the local agriculturists, we have also been able to minimise human-animal conflict.
Yet, many of these villagers are now ignoring the warnings of the forest department and administration and renting out space to tourists for quick monetary gains. This is an unfortunate development. The Gir-Somnath district administration has been active in curbing illegal constructions. In the last week of October, more than 50 illegal hospitality units were sealed in Talala taluka. The Gujarat High Court has also reviewed the situation and the state government has issued guidelines to regulate hospitality units. The administration has decided that no new units will be allowed within one km of the Gir sanctuary.
Tourism has increased in the area over the years. But the quality of tourists has not. So there is a strong need for communication and strict enforcement to keep the ecology of the area intact.
Pradeep Singh is deputy conservator of forests, Greater Gir Task Force. Nitin Sangwan is assistant collector, Gir-Somnath District
The views expressed are personal