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
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.