It was three in the morning and there was a stench of fresh meat. A few metres from our vehicle, we saw it — a dead spotted deer. The big cats couldn’t be far. Sure enough, a leopard was slinking towards its kill, but before it could get to it, the meat was dragged away by a lion that had pounced on it from a slope on the other side.” Anish Andheria, director of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, was clearly excited, his black Nikon D200 SLR dangling on a strap from his neck. It is 9 am at the forest guest house in Sasan, a village of 4,000 on the fringes of the Gir Sanctuary in Junagadh district. Anish had just returned from a three-day sojourn in the forest as an observer in the just-concluded census of lions.
“On April 24, I saw a lion and a lioness in the Dadakadi zone. Then I saw a female sub-adult in the Kerambha zone,” he said. “In all, I have seen 18 lions—some of them were sub-adults, three or four were cubs and most of them were females.” The 13th Asiatic Lion census took place in Gir Sanctuary and the forests neighbouring it, between April 24 to 27, amid a simmering controversy over the Madhya Pradesh government seeking the relocation of a few big cats from Gir, and Gujarat government refusing to part with them.
The Gujarat government would not allow the media to tag along with the hundreds of officials and volunteers in the exercise. Fortunately, though, there was room for this flora enthusiast who could rattle off scientific names of Gir plants. The census yielded heartening results—the number of lions in Gir had increased remarkably over the last five years, from 359 in 2005 to 411 in 2010.
Andheria, 38, drove some 200 km in the woods over three days, subsisting on bajra ni rotli and shak offered by villagers. Laxman Dholkai, sarpanch of Sasan village, who had arrived at the guest house on his motorcycle, said, “We have always lived with the Asiatic Lion and with hundreds of other animals and birds. And we want to continue to live with them.” Dholkai has been part of three earlier lion censuses.
In the just-concluded census, over 300 sarpanchs offered their tractors to supply food, accommodation and 900 villagers were chosen as volunteers. The operation was spread over an area roughly the expanse of Delhi, divided into seven regions that were further divided into 28 zones, which were further fragmented into 100 sub-zones. The scale of the operation was staggering: 135 officers, 450 enumerators, 900 volunteers, 50 photographers, 12 doctors, 11 researchers, 200 four-wheeled vehicles and 450 motorbikes.
On the morning of April 27, the last day of the exercise, a gray, hardtop Gypsy rumbled into the forest, and after an hour, we — four of us, including the driver, a guide and Vira Chopra, three-time lion census observer—reached a shallow, cemented water trough where three men stood in the unforgiving sun, wearing black boots provided by the forest department. One of them was a forester clad in khaki, GPS device in hand. The other two were volunteers. Smoking a beedi, one said they had spotted two cubs and one grown female since morning. “That’s good news,” said Chopra, above the cacophony of cicadas resounding through the teak forest. He believed the number of young adult lions was on the rise.
Back in Sasan, the conversation was animated, broken by calls from the teams reporting from the field. There were eminent animal enthusiasts here, among them were Venu Menon of the Animal Allies Foundation and ornithologist Lavkumar Khacher. By evening, the guest house was swarming with more than a hundred volunteers and forest officials. Seventy-four-year-old Sanath Chavan, who was deputy conservator of forests, Gir Sanctuary, in 1968, when the first census was conducted, recalled how a lion had once sat atop a villager for two hours. The man had lain on the ground waiting for death, but all the lion did was break two of his rib bones, and that from its sheer weight. Chavan, who has spent half-a-century with lions, had many stories to tell—about Nawabi trackers who sat beside the biggest lions, and “cowardly” Britishers who made them hold the cats by their limbs so that they could shoot at them. The stories went on till dinner, after which everyone went back to their maps and notes — they had a report to submit at 2 pm the next day.