The Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica, the flagship species of India, is today synonymous with Gir- the sanctuary which has just completed 50 years of its existence.
Gir is perhaps one of the few abodes left of this majestic species which once roamed Eastern Europe, West, Central and South regions of Asia. Uncontrolled ‘hunting for sport’, shrinking habitats and tigers, in some areas, have all been instrumental in wiping out the Asiatic lion population.
In the early twentieth century, 1913 to be precise, when the Asiatic or Indian lion population was on the brink of extinction, when (according to the then Chief Forest Officer of Junagadh), ‘less than twenty lions’ survived in the Gir forests of Gujarat, alarm bells were rung all over on the gradual disappearance of the species.
Although subsequent counts put the figures to have been around ‘fifty to hundred’, there is no doubt that the numbers were certainly down. Although the Nawab of Junagadh, never hunted lions, VVIPs were often invited for trophy hunting. But concern for the Asiatic lion was first expressed as far back as 1900, when the then British Viceroy, Lord Curzon, had to politely turn down an invitation to hunt in the Gir, following an uproar in the media, fearing extinction of the lions if hunting continued. The Viceroy had followed up with a letter to the Nawab in 1902, advising stricter laws to protect lions in his domain.
The efforts of the rulers of erstwhile Junagadh state, and subsequent governments of independent India have scripted a rare success story, wherein the Asiatic lion has risen from a state of from near- extinction to 523 heads, as per the last five-yearly census conducted in year 2015.
The home-range of lions has also expanded from 1412 sq. km. of the Gir National Park and Sanctuary to 22,000 sq. km., covering Girnar Sanctuary, Paniya Sanctuary, Mitiyala Sanctuary and 1500 revenue villages. The natural dispersion of wild ungulates followed by both the top carnivores – lion and leopard, has been ongoing since the past three decades, ever since Gir was declared a sanctuary on September 18, 1965, and the lion project launched in 1972.
At that point of time, the maldhari families and their livestock were shifted outside the sanctuary. The population of wild ungulates, which was around 6,000 in 1970, has multiplied more than ten times, thus reversing the prey preferences of the lions. From 75 per cent livestock and 25 per cent wild ungulates then, it is now 75 per cent wild ungulates and 25 per cent livestock within the sanctuary.
At the several national and international workshops held to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Gir Sanctuary, the difficulties of conserving the lion population outside the Protected Area found mention, especially since about 35 per cent of the lion population has already been established outside the protected areas (PAs) of the four sanctuaries ‘protecting the protected species inside the protected area is rather easy, but protecting the protected species outside the protected area is a challenge’, was the general refrain.
In Saurashtra, people remain generally tolerant of the lion. The animal and its presence have religious connotations in Hinduism; the lion is also the state animal of Gujarat, and embodiment of India’s national pride.
However, when lions and leopards roam in close proximity to human settlements, basic safety precautions need to be taken. People need to avoid sleeping outside, keep farm houses and streets well-illuminated, protect children after dusk, avoid consuming fish, meat, or non-vegetarian food, as the smell attracts the predators, and to provide drinking water to wild animals away from human habitations, so as to avoid human-animal conflicts.
At the same time, animal corridors need to be protected, with adequate under-passes and fencing made to reduce road and rail accidents.
IUCN has already upgraded the status of the Asiatic lion from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2008, meaning that lion conservation in Gir and Greater Gir, encompassing the entire Asiatic Lion Landscape of 22,000 sq. km., has proceeded in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Sakkarbaug zoo of Junagadh has been sending Asiatic lions to zoos across the world under an Asiatic lion breeding program. Recently, the Zoological Society of London created a mini Gir at London zoo, to keep and breed Gir lions under a multi-million sterling pound lion conservation programme. This is a major effort that should prove how humans and animals can share the planet in happy co-existence.