Gir: where lions thrive but need a second home

Experts describe the efforts of conservation at Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary — the only home to Asiatic lions — as a success story. From being nearly extinct in early 1890s to the current number of 523 speaks volumes of the efforts put in by the Gujarat Forest Department and the local communities. But with the forests of Gir having reached a saturation level, the lions are waging a silent struggle for survival, calling for long-term conservation planning.

Until the 1890s, Gir was a hunting ground for the Nawabs of Junagadh. In 1900, it was Nawab Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi who first declared about 1,200 sq km of forest area of Gir as ‘protected’ and banned hunting after the number of these highly endangered species had plummeted (about 20, according to some estimates). Later in 1965, Gir forest was declared as a wildlife sanctuary.

In 1968, when the first scientific census of Asiatic lions (Pantheraleopersica) was conducted, there were only 177 lions, whereas the 2015 census estimates that there are over 523 lions (109 males, 201 females and rest are sub-adults and cubs) roaming in a protected area of 1,412 sq km that includes both the national park and wildlife sanctuary as well as in several widely distributed pockets of wildlife habitats set in a vast area of about 20,000 sq km which is largely human dominated.

This was nearly 27% increase in comparison to the 2010 census. Adequate funding from successive state governments since 1965 has resulted in average growth of 50 lions every five years here. The Forest Department gives the credit of achieving this number to the locals and medical intervention by experts.

According to forest officials, there are over 2,000 Maldharis (semi-nomadic tribal herdsmen belonging to Rabari, Bharwad and Charan communities), living in 42 nesses (with three to 10 houses in each ness) inside Gir forests. But the presence of the maldharis in the forest has never disturbed the lions.

Another factor for flourishing of lions here is the elaborate rescue operation. Unlike other protected areas where the forest department does not medically intervene and lets the animals have the natural course of life, the Gir officials provide medical assistance. So much so that they have opened a rehabilitation centre at Sasan-Gir, where ailing lions are treated, rehabilitated and reunited with their pride.

The medical intervention is in two stages-one on the field and second at the rehab centre depending upon the gravity of the ailment. “Each lion is important for us. We can't give up even a single lion due to injury or ailment,” said N N Apparnathi, Assistant Conservator of Forest, Sasan-Gir.

According to him, over 200 trackers, 80 safari guides and 150 safari jeep drivers have been trained to identify health parameters of lions and based on their inputs, medical interventions are made. And with lions being social animals, they accept their pride members even after several months of separation. However, the Gir protected area is now saturated with lions. Of late, the region has been witnessing a jump in human-animal conflicts due to the increasing overlap of lions and dense human populations.

Experts say that Asiatic lion prides require large territories but there is limited space at Gir protected area which is constrained from all sides by human settlements. Lack of free and suitable territory to weaker prides has resulted in lions moving out of the protected area and establishing themselves outside the protected area. According to an estimate, lions are now spread over 16,000 sq km in the vicinity of 1,050 villages in three neighbouring districts of Amreli, Bhavnagar and Junagadh.

“Undoubtedly, human-animal conflicts have increased here due to the rise in number of lions and leopards. But the forest cover has remained almost same for last 50 years,” says Ram Ratan Nala, Deputy Conservator of Forest, Gir. He adds that this ‘territory expansion’ of lions is an alarming bell as lions are at risk at one end and humans and cattle at another.

A 2010 study by researcher Meena Ven­kataraman states that annually over 1,000 cattle were killed by lions in and around the protected area of Gir. “Now, that figure might have gone further up,” she says. 

New home

Meanwhile, constant presence of lions in the neighbouring villages has forced forest officials to find newer and safe homes for them. As a first step towards it, Gujarat government identified four nearby forests — which were once home to these lions — Mitiyala, Girnar, Pania and Barda for relocation. “With Supreme Court’s recent order to Gujarat to translocate lions to Madhya Pradesh, the Gujarat government is forming a committee to study feasibility of the ‘new home’ and only after being 100% satisfied, they will be considered for shifting in spite of Gujarat government being against shifting their ‘cultural identity’ animals”, Nala observed.

Experts say that the 'second home' is a must for the lions as a long-term conservation measure. “Putting all your eggs in one basket is not a wise thing,” said Ravi Chellam, Executive Director, Greenpeace India and an expert on lions. Providing lions a second home is like taking insurance against any natural or man-made disaster in future, he says.

With 35% ‘lion-spotting’ chances, Gir has become popular for wildlife tourism. Annually, around five lakh tourists visit it and the revenue generated from jungle safari is Rs 10 crore. To reduce stress on the jungle due to such a huge tourist inflow, the Forest Department has created an interpretation zone at Devalia, 12 km from Sasan-Gir.

This zone, spread over 412 hectare, has a chain-linked fenced area which houses 10 lions rescued from human habitation, few leopards and other animals, to offer Gir in a nutshell. “This facility reduces stress on the main forest as it takes 65% of the tourist share from the main forest. It also offers tourists a satisfaction of seeing lions in the wild,” Nala remarked.

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