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A Troubled King

A Troubled King

October 1998: Gir happens to be the single largest tract of forest in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat State and has become virtually synonymous with the Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica. The lion is believed to have entered India from Persia at least 6,000 years ago and was present in large numbers in Northern and Western India in the bygone years.

Genetic studies indicate however that the lions in Gir and Africa have been reproductively isolated for at least 1,00,000 years, not long in evolutionary terms. Consequently, reproductive incompatibilities have not yet evolved between the two sub-species. The last surviving lion in the wild outside Gir was shot in 1884.

The erstwhile Gir in Saurashtra has shrunk from 3,070 sq.kms. in the year 1880 to 1,884 sq.km. today, thanks largely to the expansion of agriculture and destruction of habitat. In the early part of this century, it was connected with Girnar, Mitiyala, Barda, Alech hills, Dhank and Chorwad by corridors of rough semi-wooded forests and grasslands. The sparsely populated villages that supported simple communities did not stop the lions from moving freely through their extensive habitat. The lions deserted Barda and Alech hills towards the latter half of the 19th century and more or less disappeared from Girnar and Mitiyala by 1963 and 1955 respectively. When Gir forests were notified as a lion sanctuary in 1965, the cats had become restricted only to the compact forest we now call Gir.

Thankfully, Gir is a very stable ecosystem with tremendous regenerating, self-supporting and sustaining ability. It is a unique biodiversity stronghold that harbours over 450 species of plants, 32 mammals, 24 reptiles, over 310 birds, and more than 2,000 species of insects. Its myriad micro flora and fauna have not been fully documented.

Over a quarter century ago, in 1972, a study by Dr Paul Joslin revealed that the Gir ecosystem showed signs of accelerated degradation. He warned that the Asiatic lion would be extinct in two decades, unless steps were taken to reverse habitat destruction." Doyens of yesteryears such as M.K. Dharmakumarsinhji, forcefully pointed out that the lions were in trouble and advocated strict steps to save them. Much of this advice was taken because the people of Saurashtra are particularly proud of this heritage.

At a more basic level, Gir was probably saved because it was declared a sanctuary in 1965. This resulted in an increase in herbivore (chital, sambar, bluebull, chinkara, four horned antelope, and wild boar) populations from around 10,000 in 1974 to approximately 40,000 in 1995. Consequently, prides of lions that had begun to predate on livestock, turned increasingly to wild prey.

Girnar: Ropeway to ruin

According to the Nature Club of Sabar, Viniyog Parivar and Mahajanam, while one set of people seek to protect Girnar, another seeks to destroy it in the name of development, religion, tourism and ecodevelopment. Between one and 17 km. from Gir illegal limestone, granite and black stone mining is rampant. Through one means and another, powerful people manage to place their own interest over that of the lions. The Kankai Temple Trust, for instance, seeks to claim some 50 hectares of forest land, which will thus be denied to the lions. Such persons seem to forget that there is no finer temple than the forest itself. They do not recognise the contradiction inherent in claiming that they worship god, yet are prepared to destroy nature.

A similar threat is posed to the nearby Girnar forests by the Gujarat Tourism Development Corporation, which has asked Usha Unbrako Ltd. to construct a ropeway to the top of the hill, which will result in hacking down trees and disturbing the area. Voluntary groups are trying their best to protect the forest from such threats, but political strings are sought to be pulled to counter such laudable efforts ... to the detriment of both the lions and the nation itself. Unless such trends are countered any hope of protecting an extended Gir area are fated to die young.

The relationship between herbivores and their habitats on the one hand and the lions of Gir on the other has been studied by Berwick (1974) and Khan (1990). Joslin's work in 1972 and then Ravi Chellam's 1990 field research investigated the ecology of Gir and lion behaviour per se. Reading these combined reports presents us with a relatively clear picture of Gir, and Joslin (1972) reported that at least 75 per cent of lion food came from livestock, mainly buffaloes and a mere 25 per cent from wild herbivores. The increase in ungulate populations over the past two decades has literally breathed new life into the future of the lions. Ravi Chellam's work between 1986-90 indicates that wild prey constituted 65 per cent of the lion's diet. The reduced livestock killing by the cats should do wonders for their relationship with local communities.

Pride of place

Lions are social animals with well established pride behaviour. They usually live and hunt in prides and in May 1995 a total of 304 lions were located at 94 sites on live baits. Five years earlier the estimate was 284 lions at 59 locations (see box for the composition of groups).

Where have all the lions gone?

Around the middle of this century lions disappeared from neighbouring forests outside Gir. Before the census in 1990, lions were only sometimes seen in Girnar, Mitiyala and the coastal forests. But subsequently they have started reclaiming these habitats, which they now more or less permanently occupy. Studies reveal that there are now four satellite populations of lions around Gir. In fact, a second generation of lions can now be seen more or less permanently in Girnar and the coastal forests. These dispersal patterns could well be the manner in which lions first became isolated and then extinct in all habitats but Gir at the beginning of this century. If this turns out to be true, the writing is on the wall. We are losing the lions. Ensuring a secure home for them somewhere, thus becomes an overriding priority.

The majority of the lions that migrated were sub-adults, probably compelled by dominant males to leave the pride and secure territories. Interestingly, wild lions in Girnar regularly visit the spacious lion enclosures in the Sakkarbaugh Zoo Junagadh, constructed recently as part of a new breeding programme. Initially four wild lions were spotted. The figure has now reached 13 lions.

As for the coastal belt, man-made plantations do support small populations of nilgai and wildboar. One pride of 16 lions in Kodinar Dhamrej Sutrapada and another of 10 lions in Rajula and Jafarabad were seen to depend on both cattle and nilgai. There was a time when such lions were tranquilised and were brought back to Gir, but their repeated movements back to their coastal forests in search of food and territory has resulted in the acceptance of a permanently settled population. A fourth population of lions is to be found in the Mitiala forests of the Bhavnagar Forest Division. This pride too is in the process of settling there permanently (see box for lion distribution details).

Problems in Paradise

Man-animal conflict: While there is no doubt that the Gir habitat has improved over the years thanks to more effective conservation measures, the fact is that man-animal conflicts are far from over. Roughly 20 per cent of the lions that live outside Gir, for instance, still depend on livestock as a primary source of food. The average figures in the last five years reveal that 1,910 domestic animals, mainly cows and buffaloes were killed by the lions (largely in the rainy season).

Dispersal and migration: Prior to the 1990 census lions were only occasional visitors to places such as Girnar, Mitiyala and the coastal forests to the south. In 1990 officials recorded as many as 17 lions outside Gir and this number jumped to 42 by 1995 (Girnar 13, Mitiyala three and the coastal zone 26)!

In January 1996 residents were shocked out of their wits to discover that a lioness with two grown cubs actually made her way to a plantation in Diu, an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. Territorial conflicts between males in prime lion habitats are probably responsible for this trend. Interestingly, the entire increase in lion numbers recorded in the 1995 census was observed to be from outside the Gir forest proper. Observers suggest that the severe drought of 1987-88 probably triggered the first serious migrations. Be that as it may, people in Saurashtra have not quite come to terms with the persistence with which the lions have started colonising new turf. In the Bhavnagar district, for instance, a lioness and her cubs were spotted continuously between November 1997 and January 1998 in the Bhamodra village. Similarly a group comprising a lioness and two grown cubs was seen in August 1997 in the Ambardi forest close to the Khodiyar dam near the town of Dhari, 20 km. north of Gir. All these areas were once contiguous, but agriculture and industry conspired to fragment the forest. Now there seems no option but to institute a serious 'Greater Gir Management' system to manage Gir, its satellite lion population zones and the corridors connecting these habitats. Particularly problematic animals will need to be captured and possibly placed in suitable zoos.

Limestone mining: Wasteland and community lands in coastal zones and around Gir are rich in limestone that is much valued by cement companies. These industries are expanding fast and are causing severe habitat degradation to the detriment of both lions and leopards. If the Gir lion is to be saved the cement companies will need to be convinced to source their material from other destinations, or shift their production facilities away from Gir.

300 lions in Gir?

Though there is no clear-cut management option that guarantees assured results, it stands to reason that if the Gir habitat were well protected, the availability of prey species would be better. Food is clearly not a major limiting factor for the present number of lions in Gir. Forest Department figures suggest that over the last three decades we have seen a 14.2 per cent rise in ungulate numbers. But there is a limit to this growth and space constraints could conceivably result in territorial conflicts particularly when young lions are forced to seek their own territories. The lion population was estimated at 267 in 1990 and 262 in 1995. Their protected range stayed constant at 1,412 sq.km., comprising both the national park and the sanctuary. We have every reason to believe that 300 lions could be supported, but it is obvious that the growing populations of lions will need protection and development of habitats in the new areas they have naturally adopted. Play best friv games.

A terrible drought took hold of Saurashtra in 1987 and this was when we noticed a natural dispersal of lions from Gir. This migration started tentatively with 17 lions recorded outside Gir in 1990. By 1995 these wanderers numbered 42! But since the numbers remained more or less constant inside Gir we must presume that the present level of the lion population is indeed the carrying capacity of the park and sanctuary.

Distribution of lions in different areas

Lion census May, 1995

Site                                               Lion Population

Male   Female    Cubs     Total

1 Gir National Park                      10      12            9          31

2 Gir Sanctuary                           72      92           50        214

3 Gir peripheral forests                10       6              2         18

4 Girnar                                     10       3              –         13

5 Mitiyala                                     2       1              –           3

6 Coastal forests                          8        8             10        26


112     122          71       305

Lion numbers outside Gir consist of a floating population because some visit the above zones for short periods and come back to the original areas. The above table indicates that 42 lions including ten cubs stay outside Gir and also indicates that the population of lions staying outside the Protected Area may keep on increasing under existing protection levels.

All four sites have low herbivore numbers and migrated lions primarily depend on domestic livestock kills. The trend of dispersal of lions still continues, and could result in population from Girnar and coastal forests reaching new areas in Saurashtra.

What now?

While the lion is a prime reason to save the Gir forest, there are other pressing reasons to ensure its survival. For instance, villages and towns living dowstream of the forest are much better off than their counterparts in Saurashtra because its seven principal rivers and impoundments such as the Kamleshwar lake help to recharge wells and groundwater. Meteorologists point out that the forest area around the lake attracts 1,000 mm. of precipitation, compared to 600 mm. in barren parts of the eastern region. The lion is of course the key 'indicator species' and it should rightly decide the ecological boundary of Gir. In the background of this reality, the concept of management of a Greater Gir Ecosystem or 'Extended Gir' that incorporates the new territories claimed by the lions has become a vital necessity. But this idea must take into account the sensitivities and fears of the lakhs of people affected by the proximity of lions to their doorstep.

Searching for a new home for the lions at Palpur Kuno (see page 20.) has the advantage of ensuring that, thanks to geographical isolation, a catastrophic disease does not wipe out the entire species. But there is clear wisdom in also evolving a strategy designed to manage grasslands and wastelands around the present Gir protected area from the presently available 1,814 sq.km. to a base minimum of 2,370 sq.km. This would be another very key foundation to securing the lions' future. Equally important is the need to protect the connecting forests, wastelands and panchayat lands between Gir and Extended Gir. To do this the entire district administration of Junagadh and Amreli will need to be taken into confidence. So will the communities living next to the Greater Gir Forests. Perhaps most important of all, we need to establish norms to deal with the inevitable lion-human conflicts that will emerge. What we need, in other words, is a unified administrative set up amalgamated in the effort to save the Gir lion.

H. S. Singh, IFS, has worked in Gir as the Conservator of Forest, Wildlife, Junagadh. He is currently attached to the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation.

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XVIII No. 5, October 1998


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