ADAM HALLIDAYPosted: Jul 12, 2012 at 0512 hrs IST
Ahmedabad A large, competing population of livestock and wild ungulates in and around Gir is overcrowding the area and leading into discussions about what can be done, much like in the early 1970s when maldhari, or pastoralist, families had to be relocated.
An internationally-funded study had then counted 21,000 domestic herbivores devouring much of the plants there, resulting in a low wild ungulate population of just a few thousand.
After maldharis were relocated, the population of wild ungulates (chital, sambar, nilgai, wild boar, four-horned antelope, langur and chinkara) increased dramatically and their total population now stands at nearly 70,000.
“Livestock population has reached the 1970 levels again, and there is increasing competition between domestic and wild herbivores, leading to degradation of patches in the forest area and more cases of carnivores (the Gir region hosts Asiatic lions, leopards and hyenas) attacking the maldharis’ livestock,” said a veteran forest department official, adding the central government has been apprised of the situation.
Although a second maldhari relocation project is on the cards, top forest officials contend there is still much to debate before a full-fledged plan is laid out (in fact, the revised management plan being currently debated for the sanctuary and national park does not contain such a plan).
“On top of the list is the financial costs that will be required to move and resettle thousands of humans and tens of thousands of animals,” said another senior official involved in the discussions.
The second is the resistance such a plan is likely to trigger, and even if that can be settled, rehabilitation packages will have to be negotiated, he said, somewhat wary that demands for such packages are likely to be exaggerated in some cases.
The third is whether or not the political class or agencies in the central government will fully back such a relocation project. Foresters say they will have to test the waters even if they take the entire onus of carrying out the groundwork themselves.
In the transition years of the 1960s and 1970s, the state forest department and a trio of institutions — Bombay Natural History Society, Smithsonian Institution and Yale University — had initiated a research, “The Gir Lion Project”.
Aided by forester Sanat A Chavan, who has since retired, researcher Paul Joslin had recorded “about 21,000 domestic livestock graze within the (Gir) sanctuary and this number gets doubled or trebled during the dry season”.
This had dire consequences. The research noted there was “very low ungulate biomass due to heavy grazing and browsing by domestic livestock” and lions fed “almost exclusively” on maldharis’ livestock in the absence of their natural prey.
Meanwhile, the Asiatic lion population had dropped from 177 to 285 in just five years. And later, between 1972 and 1986, hundreds of maldhari families were shifted from the area and a rubber wall was erected to stop animals from grazing inside the sanctuary. Besides, wild ungulates were bred and introduced as prey for the carnivores.
From less than 10,000 in 1974, the wild ungulate population reached 69,972 by the time the lion population was estimated to be 411 in 2010.
The protected part of Gir forest covers 1,412 sq kilometres, which includes the national park and sanctuary.