Ahmedabad: The tiger population is diminishing despite herculean conservation efforts, but Asiatic Lions seem to be enjoying a revival in Gujarat’s Gir forest.
Though the exact numbers will be known only when the lion census (scheduled to start next month) gets over, there is expected to be a 20% increase over the population recorded in the previous census. During the 2005 census, 359 lions were found in Gir.
After the projected increase of 20%, 425 are expected to be found. If the census reflects and proves this trend, lion conservation in Gujarat will become the biggest and most successful conservation success stories in the world.
The increase in the lion population has happened despite the paltry sums being allocated for lion conservation by the Centre. Chief conservator of forest MM Sharma, who’s currently in Junagadh wildlife circle, told DNA that the Centre gave around Rs70 lakh for lion conservation in 2009 even though it spent hundreds of crores on tigers. “Just one Mumbai-based trust has donated Rs81 lakh this year,” Sharma said.
The success, acknowledged and appreciated in the conservators’ community, has been attributed mainly to the local people — the residents of 1,500 villages in the districts of Junagadh and Bhavnagar.
“Gujarat deserves a pat on the back for the lovely upkeep of lions. However, it must be kept in mind that this story would have been completely different if the lions had been in any other state,” said
Yadvendra Jhala, faculty at the Wildlife Institute of India, who was part of the tiger census. “People here are mostly vegetarian, so the lions’ prey-base is not poached upon. The king of the jungle survives even out of the forest area.”
While the growth in numbers is being celebrated, there are three big challenges. Because of the increasing numbers and increasing human pressure in its periphery, the lion’s habitat is shrinking at its fastest rate. This will make it very difficult for the animals to move freely and multiply. Besides, the politicisation over the ‘ownership’ of lions has made the issue of shifting some lions to safer habitats very complicated. This means lions face the biggest threats from natural calamity or disease.
The conservation is successful because lions now roam over 8,000 sq km in Saurashtra. “There is no retaliatory killing even if lions kill livestock. Villagers are proud to have them here.”