Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lion People

May 25, 2008
Deepa Krishnan

Everyone knows about the Masai of Africa, but have you heard of the Lion People of Gujarat?

My daughter went to Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary, and brought back this portrait of a Maldhari herdsman.

The Maldharis are buffalo-herders, who live in little mud nesses inside the Gir forest. Like the Masai, the Maldhari count their wealth in cattle and build their ness with a thorn enclosure to safeguard livestock from predators. But unlike the Masai, the Maldharis are vegetarian and do not slaughter their livestock for meat. They live instead, by selling milk and milk products, and use the earnings to barter or buy vegetables.

Maldhari homes have no electricity or running water. Every morning, the Maldhari men take their cattle to the forest to graze, while the women gather firewood and grass, draw water, and tend to the home. While letting their cattle graze, the Maldhari have to keep a sharp lookout for Gir's Asiatic lions, for whom the cattle are an easy target.

They're good looking people, these men, aren't they? Sharp features, confident, and so very macho. Maybe you'd be macho too, if you had to watch out for prides of hunting lionesses, with only a stick or an axe to protect your herd? The lions take 8 out of every 100 cattle that the Maldhari own, but the Maldharis do not hunt or kill the lions. They have learned to live alongside them.

The Forest Department believes Maldhari cattle over-graze the forest and deplete its water resources, making life difficult for the deer, nilgai and other ungulates of Gir. In addition, they fear domestic cattle will bring disease into the forest, wiping out the last surviving pure breed of Asiatic lions.

But other conservationists say the Maldhari herds are still vital to the survival of the lions. A 16-month study monitoring six Maldhari nesses in 2006-2007 established that almost 50% of the diet of Gir lions consists of Maldhari livestock. If you were to remove the Maldharis from the park, the study says, it would significantly affect the lion density, pride size and structure.

Sasan Gir has a complex set of problems. The biggest one is that it has too many lions and too little space. So there are territorial fights among the lions, and this leaves the smaller and younger males with no choice but to look for new places outside the protected area. Gir's lions have now started migrating outside the park. I'm glad they are reclaiming the lands where they once roamed, but this brings them into populated areas and creates new sources of conflict. Relocating the lions to another sanctuary would be a good idea - but the Gujarat government doesn't want to move the lions out of Gujarat, so it blocked a plan recommended by the Wildlife Institute of India to move some lions to Madhya Pradesh.

Five state highways pass through Sasan Gir, and there is a widespread limestone mining nearby. There's a cement plant barely 15 kilometers outside the protected area. There are 23 temples, and 250,000 tourists every year. In an area that has very little rainfall, these human activities drain scarce resources, and leave the waterholes dry in summer (Lions in Gir have fallen into human wells!).

Instead of fixing these issues (which involve influential people and big money), the government has got it into its head that the Maldharis - a community that does not poach - are the chief problem.

In my view, the biggest threat to the Asiatic lion is not the Maldharis. The biggest threat is that the only 300-odd surviving Asiatic lions in the world are all hemmed together in one small forest. A single epidemic could wipe out the entire species. This is a disaster just waiting to happen.

Deepa Krishnan has a consulting practice in banking technology. She owns Mumbai Magic and Delhi Magic, companies that offer insightful, off-beat city tours


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