Courting the king
The Gir Wildlife Sanctuary is the last remaining home of the Asiatic lion and has throngs of tourists, all trying to catching a glimpse of the lion. Till 1850, the Asiatic lion population extended from Iran till the Indian subcontinent.
The lion found a place in mythology, historic emblems and tales from Iranian to Indian civilisations and kingdoms, from ancient times. By the beginning of the 20th century, the lion had already vanished from many parts of India. The last lion reported from Iran was in 1930.
The Asiatic lion was wiped away from its entire range, except the Junagarh forests of Gujarat. The far-sightedness of the Junagarh Nawab saved them from extinction. He requested the British Governor General to ban the hunting of lions quoting their numbers much less than actual figures. British officers were prohibited from hunting lions.
Much has changed since then and much remains the same – among them is Sinh Sadan. Made into a forest rest house, Sinh Sadan, with its beautiful cottages and gardens, celebrates its centenary this year. Tourists and guides line up early each morning in the guest house compound, which has a small but good information centre.
A limited number of safari permits are given for eight routes inside the sanctuary. Trackers, well-versed with the forest, start before the advent of tourists to locate the movement of lions. They inform guides about the presence of lions on different routes and early tourists are generally graced by a retreating lion or pride. The ones who come later can only catch the lions resting during the day.
Of the many tribal villages inside the forest, there is one that belongs to Africans who were brought here by the Nawab of Junagarh. Don’t be surprised if you find an African in a tracker’s uniform, speaking in Gujarati and walking behind a lion named Maulana.
The sanctuary management, especially the involvement of tribals based inside the forest, is commendable.
The well-protected and increasing number of lions (presently 411, which is more than its carrying capacity) wander outside the sanctuary in search of their own home ranges and create trouble in other areas.
If a natural disaster or an epidemic like canine distemper strikes, there is little hope for these last remaining Asiatic kings. The Wildlife Institute of India has found that the lion population of Gir, which has risen from a very small base, is additionally vulnerable due to its homogenous gene pool.
Though the efforts of the Gujarat government are admired and the point well-understood that the lion is their USP, for long-time conservation, it is required to build alternative homes for the lion.
The Bio-diversity Conservation Trust of India has fought a gruelling battle with the Gujarat government in this connection. Conservationists across India have hailed the Supreme Court’s recent judgement to put on hold the African Cheetah re-introduction programme in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh, in favour of translocating native Asiatic lions from Gujarat.
Moving to Kumbhalgarh
The judgement has given hope to wildlife conservator Raza H Tehsin’s proposal to the government of Rajasthan in April 2009 to introduce the Asiatic lion in Kumbhalgarh, a historical site which was recently declared National Park.
The Kumbhalgarh fort was built in the 15th century by Maharana Kumbha. The strong high wall of the fort is 36-km long, the second largest in the world after the Great Wall of China.
The wide enclosure of Kumbhalgarh Fort is lying vacant, except for the entrance, which has the chief structures of archaeological value – the fort and the main temple.
The rest of it is only a high parapet wall with a small human habitation, which will need to be relocated since it has been declared a national park.
The old wall can be repaired and a small wall can be constructed a few 100 meters from the entrance to separate the archaeological monuments from the enclosure. Once this is done there will be a 12-sq-km-wide enclosed area where the Asiatic lion can be preserved in semi-wild conditions. The wall will ensure that it is not able to leave the protected area.
Water holes can be made within this enclosure and ungulates already found in the national park released here. Once they are settled and their population increases, a pride of lions can be introduced. To ensure proper food to the lions, some buffaloes can also be released.
Boost for tourism
Lion safaris organised there will make the project self-sustaining and provide employment opportunities to the locals. Kumbhalgarh is located near Udaipur, the ‘City of Lakes’ and many tourists visit the fort. The lion safari will provide an additional attraction, thereby increasing tourists and revenues.
Once the Forest Department repairs and maintains the wall, it will lead to greater care of the archaeological site, which has suffered due to Archaeological Survey of India’s lack of resources. The enclosure will ensure less human interference and reduce thefts of idols from the temples.
After testing it for some time, the Asiatic lion can be introduced in wild conditions inside the sanctuary, where it will not have competition with the tiger for food, like the forests of Madhya Pradesh.
The fort is located at a height of 3,500 feet but lions are found in Africa at 5,000 feet and above as well. Reintroducing lions in Kuno is an excellent initiative.
But our knowledge of wild Asiatic lion is limited. Lions were released before in the forest of the then Central Province and United Province (now Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh). Most of them didn’t survive, and those who did, became man-eaters and had to be killed.
It is evident that the high walls of Kumbhalgarh and the wide enclosed area are safe, cost-effective and an entirely workable proposition for the conservation of the Asiatic lion.
Learning lessons from history and making use of the initiative of BCTI, we should develop more homes for the last remaining gene pool of this majestic being. Today, the king of the forest sadly has to depend on mankind, the un-benevolent dictators of the planet, for its survival.