Ahmedabad: The population of tigers in India has continued to shrink despite infusion of huge funds into efforts for their conservation. No such funds have been available for lion conservation. Yet, the population of the Asiatic lions in the Gir forests — which, incidentally, is their last surviving abode — has continued to increase.The lion census scheduled next month would be the latest exercise to arrive at an estimate of the lion population in the Gir region. Though the results of the census will be known only after a few months, it is estimated that lion population in the region has increased by nearly 20%. This would take the figure for the number of lions in Gir to approximately 425.
The last census in 2005 had estimated the population of lions to be around 359. If the next census indicates that lion numbers had increased by nearly 20%, lion conservation in Gujarat would become one of the biggest success stories of conservation.
Moreover, this rise in lion numbers would have come at a time when tiger population in neighbouring states (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra) have plummeted despite the huge amounts spent on their conservation.
In Gujarat, on the other hand, lion numbers have increased despite the paltry sum allocated by the Union government for their conservation. Chief conservator of forests, MM Sharma, who is currently in-charge of Junagadh wildlife circle, told DNA that around Rs70 lakh was sanctioned by the Centre for lion conservation in 2009.
This is in sharp contrast to the crores spent on the tiger. “Just one Mumbai-based trust has donated over Rs81 lakh for tiger conservation this year,” Sharma said. Gujarat’s success story has been possible mainly because of the support of the local population.
“Gujarat deserves a pat on the back for the wonderful upkeep of lions,” says Yadvendra Jhala, faculty at the Wildlife Institute of India. “The story may have been completely different if the lions had been in any other state. The people here are extremely tolerant to such a huge carnivore in their midst.” Jhala was part of the tiger census team. “People here are mostly vegetarians,” he said. “So the lions’ prey-base has not been poached upon by the residents.”
Despite the remarkable success, lion conservation in Gujarat still faces some big challenges. The lions’ natural habitat — the Gir forests — is shrinking, mainly because of the growth in human population. In fact, it is shrinking faster than ever before.