Gir lions hunt for lost pride


#13 Gir lions hunt for lost pride

By Ketan Modi - Calcutta - Business Standard - 28 May 1996

Sasan Gir and controversy have become near synonymous. But then, as the sole abode of the Asiatic lion, the 1412.12 sq km natural park is always under public scrutiny. Environmentalists, forest rangers and government officials are constantly crossing swords over the management of the national park.

The immediate provocation this time is the sighting of a few lions far away from Sasan. Forest officials claim that of late lions have been spotted at Kodinar and Girnar areas, both nearly 40 to 60 kilometers away from Sasan, almost near coastal Gujarat.

Forest officials insist that the lions are migrating because their numbers have risen phenomenally. At last count taken during a census conducted last year, officials claimed there were 304 lions in the forest. The result is that the lions are stalking out of the forest in a bid to regain their ancient territory. At one point, the Gir forest encompassed more than 2,500 sq kms. What's more alarming about the sudden increase in numbers today is that the food habits of the Gir lion have changed. Previously, nearly 75 per cent of its diet constituted of livestock owned by the Maldharis, a small tribe of cattle breeders residing in the forest. However with the Maldharis being relocated, forest officials claim that the percentage has come down to 35 per vent and the lion has begun preying on other protected animals in the forest

However, locals in the area contend the Gir authorities' claim. Chandrakant Patel, a photo journalist from Junagadh, doubts the veracity of last year's census. According to him, the estimated population of lions in Gir forest is not more than 200. He also alleges that the new census method adopted by the Gir authorities is not as credible as the old method. Last year, forest officials abandoned the usual counting method of following the animal's pug marks, adopting instead the "waterhole" method.

Mahesh Singh, deputy conservator of forest (wildlife division), insists that the new method is 96 per cent accurate. As the name suggests, this method involves stalking the waterholes to keep track of the animal. During the hot summer months, an animal visits a water hole frequently and last year Gir officials monitored all the 651 water holes in the region. According to Singh, 2,100 people were engaged in the mammoth exercise, covering 2,000 square kilometres in and around Sasan Gir. "We also had stand - by staff in case more than one animal was spotted in an area. Additional parties were sent with more baits," he adds.

But although Singh sticks by his figure of 304, he does admit that the lion in Gir is a harassed animal. As one former forest official points out, the tourist department has been indiscriminately promoting the park. During the peak season, tourists are allowed to visit the forest area in vehicles which has resulted in serve pollution. The plastic waste that is left behind in the jungle area adds to the nuisance.

Besides, as part of the tourist drive, a Gir interpretation zone (lion safari park) has been created at Devalia about 15 kms away from Sasan. Here six lions have been trapped in an enlosed area of 6 sq kms. Thus, tourists at the safari park are assured of seeing a lion pride resting somewhere in the open.

Also disturbing the lion's peace is a rail and road route that passes through the jungle. According to a senior official the rail track should be removed instantly as it can cause accidents killing wild animals. "Anyway the rail line passing through the forest is not earning enough revenue for the Railways. Its removal should not cause any problem," he says. Officials also rue the fact that roads passing through the forest linking Sasan with Junagadh bear heavy traffic, causing vehicular pollution.

And strange though it may sound, two temples inside the forest area have become a major pilgrimage centre, attracting over a lakh of pious devotees. As an official points out, the increasing human presence has led to an escalation in conflict between wildlife and humans in Gir.

The local Maldharis have also contributed to the problem. As far back as 1972, the government decided to resettle the Maldharis out of the forest region and offered them cultivable land as an alternative. The Maldharis live inside the forest in little hamlets, known as Ness. At one point there were a total of 129 Ness within the forest, comprising 845 families. The forest department succeeded in shifting nearly 75 "Ness" but the rest of the tribe have resisted attempts to relocate them.

Gir also has a large population of "Siddis", a tribe native of Africa who were brought to the State of Junagadh by the then Nawab a few generations back as "slaves" to work in the fields. Although the Nawab's fiefdom has long ceased to exist, the Siddis have stayed on picking up the local dialect and integrating with the forest.

The most important problem that may lead to the Asiatic lion's extinction is the growth of the animal population from a narrow gene base. According to assistant forest conservator, P P Rawal, the present population growth has been achieved from a limited number of males and females and genetic limiation can lead to the animal's extinction.

Two years ago, the forest department came up with a proposal to relocate some lions in the forests of Madhya Pradesh. But the files are still gathering dust in the ministry of environment and forest and nothing much has been done about I. Meanwhile, hemmed in by humans, the once majestic beast stalks miserably through the forest - a mere shadow of its former regal self.

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