Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice

PRIDE OF THE JUNGLE  A lioness and her two cubs.Photos courtesy: Manoj Dholakia

Internationally, conservation is a very peculiar endeavour often driven by passion but equally driven by an incomplete understanding of very complex issues. Conservation debates, at least in India are often dominated by “experts” who more often than not, are self-proclaimed.  Unfortunately knowledge, science and global experience are seldom marshalled to inform conservation policy or action. Very often we also make the mistake of focusing on the survival of individual animals rather than focus on the protection of wildlife habitats, retention of their ecological productivity, ensuring the connectivity of habitats and monitoring of populations of endangered species over the long-term.

Charismatic species tend to not only dominate the conservation debate but also hog public, media and government’s attention, and this often results in a highly skewed investment of resources to conserve a very small number of species while other species which probably deserve far more attention are neglected.

This is especially true in India where the tiger has dominated the wildlife conservation discourse for far too long. Its dominance has been so pronounced that even equally charismatic species have not got the attention due to them. Amongst this somewhat neglected lot is the Asiatic lion.

A close brush with extinction

India and especially the state and citizens of Gujarat are justifiably proud of the conservation success that the Asiatic lions represent.  This population of lions had a very close brush with extinction in the late 1880s and early 1990s but over the last few decades has recovered very well and currently is thriving in and around Gir forests in Saurashtra. These are the sole surviving wild lions in Asia.

Currently, the major lion-related conservation issue dogging policy makers and conservationists is how best to manage the results of this very successful conservation effort. We have a very unusual situation where an endangered species’ population is in surplus in the context of the available wilderness habitat. This has meant that several lions are more or less permanently living outside the protected area, in forest fragments, plantations and agriculture fields all of which are in a matrix of human-dominated habitats. This situation is akin to having all your eggs in one basket. There is a high risk of the hard won conservation success being wiped out by a catastrophe like disease. My doctoral research in the mid/late 1980s focused on generating knowledge which would inform the survey and selection of suitable sites for translocating lions from Gir to establish one or two more free-ranging lion populations. I view this conservation strategy as being very similar to us purchasing insurance policies. The translocated lions will serve as an insurance against the extinction of free-ranging wild Asiatic lions.

The first sighting...

I still distinctly remember my first sighting of a lion in the wild. It was dusk in late December 1985. I had been selected by Wildlife Institute of India to study the lions and to examine the feasibility of a translocation project. I had never been to Gir and hence went on a five-day reconnaissance trip. I walked extensively and also drove several kilometres to learn about the forest and the lions. During my time in the field I saw lion tracks and scats (droppings) on numerous occasions and also examined remains of kills made by lions and even heard a lion roar at night. It was the last evening of my visit and I had not yet sighted a lion. This had me worried, as I had just joined the lion project and was planning to conduct research for my Ph D. If observing the lions was going to be so difficult then it would complicate my research plans.

As I was walking in the forest and pondering over these issues, I heard some lions growling and out of the bush emerged four lions. These were about 60 metres from me. I froze and stood still on the road. In my broken Hindi I sought guidance from my field guide, a boy from the local village. He just shrugged his shoulders and stood next to me. Armed with nothing more than a lathi, we were pretty vulnerable, more like sitting ducks if the lions decided to attack us.

By the time I gathered my wits and realised that this was a great opportunity to observe and photograph, three of the four lions had disappeared into the dense bush. I did manage to take my first picture of a wild lion, which is a side-on view of the last lion also heading into the bush. With subsequent experience, I figured out that these were four were sub-adult lions and all the growling and running around was play behaviour. I would be lying if I deny that I was a little scared when I first saw the lions. I have over the subsequent years observed lions on several hundred occasions and spent hundreds of hours observing, following and learning from them.

Gir lions are special...

Lions in Gir are unique in many ways. For starters, they are forest dwelling animals largely preying on deer, which is very different from the savannah dwelling lions of East Africa. The even more distinct feature of these lions is their tolerance and peaceful relationship with local communities. Lions do attack people, on an average about a dozen people are attacked every year out of which one person dies.  Given the frequency of interactions with people and the opportunity for the lions to attack people, the question to ask is not why there are these attacks but why there are so few attacks. In fact when I have shown my pictures and described my experiences to colleagues in Africa, they just cannot believe the access that these lions allow to people on foot.

The four years I did my field work in Gir are amongst the best years of my career. It was a lot of hard work with very few financial rewards but the thrill of working amongst large cats and observing some very unique behaviour more than made up for all the hardship.  It is these experiences and knowledge which have enabled me to conduct and direct research and conservation projects across India.

Lions are as wild as any other wild cat in India. The fact that they can be observed more easily should not be held against them. In fact it is a unique privilege they offer. One hopes that knowledge, science, global experience and good sense will prevail in deciding on the translocation project, which is only about the long-term conservation prospects for the lions and not about any other imagined set of issues.

(The writer is the Country Director, Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme.)

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