Staking claim to the same pie

Staking claim to the same pie

CONSERVATION


Sasan Gir National Park in Gujarat is still the last bastion of the Asiatic lion, and the local Maldharis have lived peacefully with the wild cat. What is upsetting the fragile natural balance is the increasing livestock population that is competing with the wild ungulates for the same forest sources, observes Atula Gupta.

Sasan Gir National Park in Gujarat is a conservation success story. What was 45 years ago a crumbling forest with the entire population of the Asiatic lion on its deathbed, has bounced back today into a verdant, self-sustaining ecosystem.

It is still the last bastion of the regal predator, but the human population here has made peace with nature and allowed the wild cat to reign and expand its brood. What is though beginning to shake the fragile natural balance is the increasing livestock population that is competing with wild ungulates for the same forest sources. Resultantly, the prey-predator dynamics of the region are starting to change.

Panthera leo persica or the Asiatic lion is a distant cousin of the African lion. But while the African lion has acres and acres of jungles and savannah under its territory, its Asian counterpart has had a turbulent history with ever-shrinking habitat and gun-friendly royalties killing the beast for pleasure and pomp.

It indeed was the Nawab of Junagadh who finally bestowed on the jungle king, the respect it deserved and banned hunting in his private landholdings. This and the declaration of Gir as a sanctuary and a national park in 1965 ensured that the Asiatic lion had a safe 1400 sq km of land to itself, if not a vast empire.

But the semi-arid region of Junagadh is also home to a pastoral community called the Maldharis. This community has long endured losses in livestock and human life, while many of their grazing practices and traditional customs have contributed to human-lion altercations. When it was first planned to create a protected area in Gir for the lions, stabilisation of the species population and the reclamation of its dwindling habitat focused on maintaining a workable human-lion co-existence.

Distorted food cycle

In a study conducted by Bombay Natural History Society, Smithsonian Institution and Yale University called the ‘The Gir Lion Project’ in 1970, it was found that about 21,000 domestic livestock grazed within the sanctuary and this number doubled or tripled during the dry season.

The research noted there was a very low population of wild herbivores as the competing cattle grazed in the forest grassland and left little for the deer and sambhars. Naturally, lions fed “almost exclusively” on Maldharis’ livestock in the absence of their natural prey. Consequently, to avoid future conflicts, Maldhari families were shifted between 1970 and 1985 and a rubber wall built to keep the livestock away from the forest. Wild herbivores were also bred to increase their population.

Today, there are more than 400 lions in Gir, and the population is steadily growing. The prey population of chital, sambhar, nilgai, wild boar, four-horned antelope, langur and chinkara have increased dramatically and their total population now stands at nearly 70,000. This is good news for the forest and a sustainable working scenario.

But with the number of domesticated herbivores like cattle and sheep beginning to increase once again, potential distortion of the food cycle and rise in human-lion conflict is a certainty.

According to a veteran forest department official, “Livestock population has reached the 1970 levels again, and there is increasing competition between domestic and wild herbivores, leading to degradation of patches in the forest area and more cases of carnivores attacking the Maldharis’ livestock.” The only possible solution is planning another re-location drive, but even experts realise that it is not an easy task to accomplish.

Conservation dilemmas

On top of the list are the financial costs that will be incurred to move and re-settle thousands of humans and tens of thousands of animals.

There will also be need for a vast new settling ground and an equally huge rehabilitation package give to each member of the community. Between 1972 and 1978, 588 families were shifted out of the Gir protected area. Each relocated family was given eight acres of cultivable and grazing land, 600 sq m of residential plot and Rs 6,050. A total of 257 families were not shifted and there were the 87 families that returned in spite of the relocation.

If relocation is planned yet again, the package size will be ten scales larger than what it was in the 70s. There is also no guarantee that the human dwellers of the forest will be gone forever. They might wish to return to their roots as before.

It is the same piece of land that the Maldharis and the Asiatic lions are laying their claim on. But while for the lions, it is literally the last place in the world to call home, for the other forest dwellers, the timing might just be right, to understand the criticality of the situation and willingly look for green pastures outside. It is but a small price to pay to secure, not just their own future but also of the land they love so much.

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