Cyclone Tauktae uprooted over 3.5 million trees in Gir National Park
Experts said the loss has a silver lining as lions often prefer open landscape but concerns remained that big cats and other wildlife may be pushed outside the sanctuary’s protected area in the long run if the trees remain uncleared
Cyclone Tauktae uprooted over 3.5 million trees in Gujarat’s Gir National Park when it tore up India’s west coast in May 2021, the state forest department has concluded after multiple surveys even as experts said the loss has a silver lining as lions often prefer open landscape. But concerns remained that big cats and other wildlife may be pushed outside the sanctuary’s protected area in the long run if the trees remain uncleared.
Around half of Gujarat’s 674 Asiatic lions— about 325 to 350—lived in the sanctuary spread over 1,412 square kilometres, according to a 2019 census.
National Board For Wildlife member H S Singh said the trees will also pose a high forest fire risk in a year or so when they become dry and threaten lions, whose population has stabilised in Gir over the last 10 to 12 years. “Herbivores like Nilgai [Blue Bull] may not be able to move freely.”
He said lions prefer open spaces to an extent but the trees should be removed from areas, where the movement of wildlife is high. “All trees need not be removed; only about 40%...”
The trees are unlikely to be removed sooner as their number is higher than those damaged in Gir (over 2.8 million) in the cyclone, which hit Gujarat in November 1982. Singh said it took about three years to clean up about 40% of the fallen trees in the 1980s.
The forest department submitted its final report on the fallen trees over a year after Cyclone Tauktae. It first estimated their number to be between 3 and 4 million in May last year based on the damage caused in 1982. The department later estimated that 30% of the trees in Gir were uprooted based on satellite data before arriving at the final number.
HT has reviewed a copy of the document submitted to the government detailing the surveys, including the final one.
A forest department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited discrepancies in the earlier findings and said a special task force was later formed to carry the final survey post-monsoon last year.
Aaradhna Sahu, the chief conservator of forests, Junagadh, where Gir is located, said they have begun the exercise for removing the fallen trees to ensure unhindered movement of wild animals and to avoid forest fire. “I cannot say there has been an adverse impact on the lions.”
Many fallen trees are likely to regenerate and the forest department may not remove them.
Jalpan Rupapara, a lion researcher in Gir, said the first few seconds when an Asiatic lion gains top speed are most crucial for hunting. “If there is an obstacle in its path due to uprooted trees, it will not be able to chase its prey. ...if the uprooted trees are cleared, it will create more open spaces preferable to lions, especially for hunting. “
Rupapara said the lion population has more or less saturated in Gir and the clearance will help keep their population intact. He added an increase in the density of vegetation and decreasing number of open spaces are some of the reasons for an increasing number of lions moving outside the protected areas.
The population of Asiatic lions increased by 27% from 2010 to 2015. But the increase within Gir’s protected areas was only 3%, according to the additional principal chief conservator of forests A P Singh’s 2018 research paper.
“Outside the protected areas, the satellite population increased by 97%. The population of herbivores increased by 51% in five years, which shows that the habitat is suitable for herbivores. Therefore, habitat intervention and manipulation are required to increase the carrying capacity of the Asiatic lion in Gir protected areas and for subsequent control of herbivores for future management,” the paper said.
Uday Vora, a former chief conservator of forests (wildlife), said Gir cannot be left at nature’s mercy. “The uprooted trees should be cleared soon. Gir needs thinning of trees. If the ground area density of the green cover is more than 60%, it is unfavourable for lions. Lions prefer open spaces and the impact of the uprooted trees lying in the sanctuary may not be immediately seen on the big cats. But it can prove detrimental in the long run.”
Some experts believe Gir was becoming dense and turning into non-typical lion habitat due to better protection. In 2015, the forest department included thinning of the sanctuary in its forest management plan. The department started work on the plan before it was stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.