Maulik PathakAhmedabad: In an attempt to establish an alternative habitat for the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), the Gujarat government plans to designate an area between Bhavnagar and Amreli districts in the state as a conservation reserve for the rare and endangered subspecies.
The effort is part of the state forest department’s broader plan to expand the distribution range of some 400 lions that survive in the Gir forest and are increasingly moving out of the area, perhaps because of their rising headcount.
The new conservation area in the Jesar-Hipavadli zone will be spread across 109 sq. km; it’s about 70km from Gir, the abode of the lions for over a century. The state will create breeding and water facilities for the beasts in the proposed conservation reserve on the lines of those existing in Gir.
The area, apart from being home to at least 20-odd lions, also acts as a corridor for the beasts to travel along the banks of the river Shatrunjay to reach relatively newer territories near Bhavnagar and Amreli. The Gir forest area also once served as a corridor for the lions to travel to other regions before they made it their home.
Barda has a large human population, which had made it difficult for the lions to enter the area in the past, according to two persons in the know of the development who did not want to be identified. A plan for rehabilitation of the locals is in the works and soon some lions could be shifted there.
“Once the proposal for conservation reserve is cleared by the state there will be restrictions for industries to come up in the area. Also there can be no mining here. There will be more legal protection for the lion. A conservation reserve allows human population to co-exist in the area,” said R.L. Meena, chief conservator of forests (wildlife division), Junagadh circle.
S.K. Nanda, principal secretary in the Gujarat government’s environment and forest department, said his department will soon give the green light to the forest department’s proposal.
“If ever there is an outbreak of some disease or a natural disaster which can put the existence of the entire lion population at stake, we will have an alternative site in place,” H.S. Singh, additional principal chief conservator of forests, social forestry, Gujarat, said.
The lions can prey on the blue bull population in the would be conservation reserve.
Plans are also afoot to create a lion gene pool at Ramapara in Amreli district.
The state government proposed to the Centre early this year the notification of an area of 3,467 sq. km near Gir as an ecologically sensitive zone, barring any industrial development or mining activity in the area.
The area is more than double the five protected areas covering 1,758 sq. km in the Gir sanctuary, according to Singh.
A corpus of Rs. 150 crore has been earmarked for the lions’ conservation.
There were 411 lions as per the 2010 census and officials say that the number has increased. The counting is done once in every five years and the next one will be in 2015. From 1968, when 177 lions were counted, till 2010, the census has shown a constant increase in the lion population.
The spotted deer is the most abundant prey for the lions and its count increased from about 4,600 in 1974 to 52,500 in 2010.
About 110-odd lions are currently outside Gir. “The lions have moved to new territories and found new homes naturally,” said Sandeep Kumar, district forest officer, Gir.
“We have allowed the lions to go out (of Gir) naturally. This is the reason why Barda even till date, after being chosen as an alternative site for lions in 1979, does not have any lions. This year by October we are expecting a group of lions to move there,” said Singh.
The Gujarat government is currently fighting a legal battle in the Supreme Court after an environmental group filed public interest litigation seeking the translocation of some lions to the Palpur-Kuno wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh on grounds that Gir is overpopulated.
The Gujarat government has argued that the translocation is unnecessary and that it would expose the lions to poachers in Madhya Pradesh.
For over 130 years, Asiatic lions have been restricted to the Gir forest and its vicinity. Lion hunting was rampant in the past and their population was down to a few dozens in the early 1980s. The princely ruler of Junagadh banned lion hunting at the turn of the 20th century.
Gir has become a model of conservation, with constant patrols against poachers.
“There would be about 500-600 lions in Gir today. A large number of lions have been wiped out in the past at Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park due to epidemics and so it becomes necessary to have a second home for them,” said an expert who did not want to be named.
“Gujarat has been doing a great job in conserving lions and an alternative site by them is timely. There have been some concerns lately over rising leopard population in the area who compete with the lions for food,” the expert said.