Asiatic lions find a new home in Guj's Surendranagar

"Can you catch them and take away? Do you have the authority to take that decision,” a middle-aged person asks a senior forest officer during a meeting sensitising villagers on the arrival of lions in their backyard, in Chobara Rampara in Surendranagar district.

The officer denies it, while another officer murmurs that even the chief minister can't order to capture the lions. The officer then calmly tells the group of villagers to remain vigilant and refrain from disturbing the big cats in any manner - whether it is taking pictures or videos on a phone, or scaring them and not allowing them to kill prey.

“We are here to compensate you as soon as possible. Whatever the lions are doing is only natural,” the officer says.

Since November 18, the day two Asiatic lions were spotted in Rampara Chobari village in Surendranagar district, roughly 100 km from their natural habitat Gir Sanctuary, the forest officers have held dozens of such meetings, build confidence among villages and avoid clashes. This is the first time after a century that the lions have come this far from their habitat. 

The large cats have already killed four cattle, for which the farmers have been compensated. However, the villagers are scared and have now stopped venturing out of their homes.

Experts believe that a rise in population in the last couple of decades has led the big cats too look for new territories to settle. The 2015 census recorded 523 lions in the state residing in Gir forest area, spread over 1,800 sq km area in the three districts of Saurashtra, including Gir-Somnath, Junagadh and Amreli.

Categorised as endangered species by the International Union For Conservation of Nature, nearly 35% of the total lion population lives outside the protected forest, resulting in a major man-animal conflict. Records show that 50 people were killed and 436 were injured in such attacks - lions and leopard - between 2013 to 2018, while 18,900 cattle deaths were also reported in the same period.

However, for 26-year-old Bhavesh Malkiya, a resident of Chobara Rampara village, the arrival of lions in Surendranagar has been a great loss. Two of his cows were killed by the lions. The forester officers compensated him with Rs 16,000 for each cow but Malkiya says, “I can’t buy the same grown-up cows with this money. I will need at least Rs 20,000 more.”

Besides the economic loss, Malkiya is also scared. The day he saw the lions, he had frozen. “I don’t want them here,” he says. However, for farmers like Bhupat Gohil arrival of lions is good news. “I want them to roam around the areas. Nilgai (blue bulls) and wild boars are found abundantly here. I hope if lions around these animals may stop coming to our farms which get damaged all the time.”

Wildlife enthusiast K S Meghadityasinh Khachar, who hails from erstwhile princely state of Jasdan, about 25 km from Chobara Rampara, says "We believe that these are nomad lions who want to settle here. We are in touch with government agencies and locals for creating awareness that lions settling in this part is good for everyone." He adds that there are enough evidence in his family history that proves that lions used to roam around in this part not more than a century back before the population was reduced and the big cats were restricted to Gir forest. 

Three forest officers, involved in tracking the movement of lions, told DH that "it looks like lions are trying to find new territories and Surendranagar has the potential."

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