New Delhi, 30 July (G’nY News service): “Gir would definitely not be the same ecosystem without the lions.” says Gujarat Gaurav Awardee Bhusan Pandya in an exclusive interview with G’nY. As a prominent wildlife photographer and Member of the State Board for Wildlife, Gujrat, Pandya’s images have been used by the scientists of Wildlife Institute of India, Forest Departments, reputed books, interpretation centers, electronic and print media, NGOs, etc.
Do you think it’s imperative to relocate a few lions from the Gir Forest National Park? Why?
Big question! To understand this, we have to consider lion behavior along with other facts. The lion is a highly territorial as wells as social animal. I have been closely watching Asiatic Lion behavior since about thirty years. Mostly, one or two adult males live and mate with three to four adult females of different small prides. When two or more males form coalition, they become very powerful and rule even larger areas.
Bhusan Pandya, Wildlife Photographer and Member of the State Board for Wildlife, Gujrat.
Even if one male lion is shifted, the whole pride becomes very weak. New males will intrude their territory and definitely kill the cubs. Even sub-adults get killed sometimes; if they escape they are compelled to find new territories. So shifting a male is like taking away the earning member-head of a family!
What I mean is, it sounds like a few animals, but its actual effect would be much worse than we can imagine. For any species, it is desirable to have as many as possible different “safe and ideal homes” for its long term conservation. However, it is not imperative for Gir lions. Let me list out the reasons.
- Contrary to the common belief, they are not confined to a small area. At present, apart from Gir National Park & Sanctuary (core population), there are five different places where the resident populations are established.
- The lions’ home range has more than doubled in the last five years. In 2010, it was 10,000 sq. km. Now it is 22,000 sq. km. and is still increasing. It is very important to note that, this has been a natural dispersal process that has been taking place over the last three decades.
- As per scientific studies and the IUCN, the Asiatic lions do not face any genetic bottleneck or depression. The protection level by the Gujarat Forest department is remarkable. Plus, awareness among the local people is admirable. The unique harmony in-between the people and lions is absolutely wondrous.
Coming to the translocation project to Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, I personally believe that the very choice of Kuno is wrong. It has been an important tiger habitat, surrounded by the tiger forests of Rajasthan and MP. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has already recommended Kuno to be protected and develop as a tiger habitat/corridor. Both lions and tigers are apex predators and they are known to fiercely guard their territories. You will have to understand that they cannot coexist in the same jungle.
Moreover, there are other deadly factors such as low wild prey base, active dacoit gangs, rampant poaching and hostile tribal, etc. at Kuno/MP. People around Gir are used to lions approaching human habitations or going after their livestock. However, the tribal people in MP want neither tigers nor lions near them. There had been cases where they retaliated by poisoning carcasses of the cattle killed.
Accordingly, I believe that no unnecessary, hasty efforts for translocation should be taken. In such immature experiments, we have lost many lions in the past two efforts.
Past two efforts? Have there been any translocation attempts in India in the past?
Oh yes ! Twice.
The first attempt was in the year 1904 when the Maharaja of Gwalior had brought some African lions and released them in the wild near Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh. The lions turned either “cattle raiders or man-eaters”. Eventually they had to be shot down.
The second attempt was in the year 1956. The Indian Wildlife Board executive committee, in the meeting at Sasan Gir, had decided to reintroduce some lions in Uttar Pradesh. One male lion and two lionesses were chosen from Gir forest. After keeping them for nine months at the Sakkarbaug Zoo, Junagadh, they were sent to Chandraprabha. They were kept in a large enclosure for five years and eventually the pride increased to eleven lions.
After five years in 1962, the lions were released in the wilderness. And then all the lions suddenly disappeared – just like that. *snaps fingers*
What?? How can 11 big cats disappear just like that?
Everyone knows what happened but no one admits. The wise experts, responsible for the project issued a statement that read “they were doing well but suddenly in 1965, all the lions disappeared.” That was all.
I believe that these experts never had the courage to admit the disturbing fact that all the lions were slauthered – either by the tribals or by poachers. Such experiments risk a greater possibility of failure, but at least they should have had the courage to take the responsibility and tell the truth.
What’s more disturbing is that these are more or less the same wise authorities who have recommended and worked out the present translocation project. The Indian Wildlife Board is now called NBWL (National Board for Wildlife). Some of the members have opined to the Supreme Court that at that time the lions were killed because they had become cattle hunters. But such an incident would not be repeated because of the Wild life Protection Act in 1972. You tell me, do poachers heed protection acts?
Was there no enquiry or investigation done?
Not immediately, no.
It was only in the late nineties that Dr. Johnsingh and Dr. Ravi Chellam did a study to chalk out the reasons of the Chandraprabha project failure. I personally believe, the only reason they found it necessary after as many as 30-35 years was because of the ongoing case in the Supreme Court.
The study attributes “inadequate area, lack of systematic monitoring using scientific techniques and unrestricted movement of grazing animals throughout the sanctuary possibly leading to conflict with the herders,” as the chief causes behind the failure of the Chandraprabha project. It also lists “small size of area, the long period of captivity in Junagadh zoo, absence of education of the local villagers and lack of conflict resolution mechanism” as contributory factors.
Almost all these factors are to hide the real fact of poaching.
Could the rising lion population in Gir pose any challenge in the near future?
“Protecting the protected species inside protected area is rather easy, but protecting the protected species outside the protected area is a challenge.”
Many revenue areas where the lions are found outside the Gir Protected Area, are covered under the Greater Gir project. A lot of work is being done, still a lot more is to be done. Speeding vehicles on the state and national & highways, rail traffic, illegal electric wire fences farms to protect crop from wild ungulates, open wells in villages and agriculture farms, etc. still pose as major challenges.
Protection in these huge areas cannot be done by the forest department alone. However, the people of Saurashtra love lions and greatly contribute in conservation attempts. The lion is not just an animal to the local people; it is a part of their culture and their daily lives. The lion is the symbol of power and strength. Some communities even worship lions; some relates it to “Narsimha”, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu while some see him as the “Aasan” of Goddess Durga.
Considering that the lion is an apex species, how would its extinction impact the ecosystem? Would it affect us humans in any ways?
Our natural heritages have been under constant human pressure. The fight between humans and the wild animals has been going on everywhere and in such fights wild animals has always been at the losing end.
Gir would definitely not be the same ecosystem without the lions.
Are there any encroachments or governmental projects in and around the GIR that threatens the sustainability of the Sanctuary?
There are not any government project/s going on in and around the sanctuary. Recently the government has submitted a new, stronger tourism policy in the High Court which will be very helpful in conservation of sanctuaries.
However, the lime stone mining in the villages or on the periphery of the eco sensitive zone might pose a threat in the future, if not restricted.
There have been a few incidents of encroachment but the authorities are firm and prompt in taking actions.
Also, could you please enlighten us on the status of wildlife corridors in the state viz-a-viz urbanization and road projects?
There has been a study by scientists of Wildlife Institute of India on corridors. The authorities have been doing their best to protect them. However, it is an uphill task as one cannot stop people from purchasing lands or constructing buildings in which a part of a lion corridor might be coming.
The geographical landscape of Gir and the surrounding area is hilly and lions have been using most of these hills as natural corridors. Wild ungulates such as blue bull, wild boar, spotted deer, etc. are also dispersed outside the protected area.
A proposal of a circular road is being considered since long. It will reduce vehicles passing through the sanctuary. However, there can be a negative impact of “cordoning” of the protected area. Under-passes are suggested to keep the movement of the wild animals undisturbed.