When the Asiatic Lion truly lived the life of royalty, its territory ranged from Asia minor and Arabia through Persia to India. However, before the close of the last century, the lion had become extinct from all these regions except Gir, where thanks to the efforts of a Nawab, its faltering future was stabilised and the Indian lion had a single yet safe haven to call home.
Today, the population of India’s lions is stable, if not completely out of danger, because of consistent conservation efforts and a recent census points that the lion king is on the lookout for newer regions to conquer. With almost double the territory recorded of the wild cat within a span of four years, the species is set for a fierce expansion plan. But, while the news is promising for the future of lions, does it also bring forth a number of other concerns, especially a rise in human-animal conflict? That is the big question.
The pride of Gujarat has doubled its territory in the span of four years from 10,500 sq km in 2010 to 20,000 sq km recorded recently. The state forest department conducted a study based on the frequent kills and compensation given to farmers and found that the presence of the predator was noted in almost one-third of the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. Of the 1,500 villages that notified the lion’s presence, most were in the Junagadh, Amreli and few in Bhavnagar district.
The last few
When Sasan Gir forests of Gujarat became the last bastion of the Asiatic lions, the species literally had nowhere else to go. Once a symbol of regal valour and ferocity, the lion symbol had adorned the palaces of many Indian kingdoms, sultanates and empires for ages. In fact, the earliest record of lions in India, it seems, are found on the famous steatite seals of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
But hunting during the British reign turned many living beasts to trophy heads adorning colonial walls, and by the end of the 19th century, India shockingly had merely 20-odd lions. The probable years of its extermination region-wise were Bihar - 1840, Delhi - 1834, Bhavalpur - 1842, Eastern Vindhyas and Bundelkhand - 1865, Central India & Rajasthan - 1870 and Western Aravallis - 1880. The last animal surviving in the wild outside Saurashtra was reported in 1884. Statistics
It was thus a pivotal moment when the then Nawab of Junagadh provided adequate protection to the animals and population of lion increased between the years 1904 to 1911. Lions were still being hunted though until shooting was rigidly controlled by the British Administration in 1913. Finally, in 1936, the first organised census showed there were 287 Asiatic lions left in the wild. Declaration of the Sasan Gir Sanctuary only ensured that these numbers continued to increase.
The present day status of the lions is not as turbulent. In the last decade, through active public support, conservation programmes and constant vigilance, the lions of Gir have fared well. Last census showed their population to be above 400 with a healthy number of adults as well as juveniles.
Interestingly, even in 2010, the Asiatic lion was expanding its territory, living further away from the restricted 1,412 sq km of the defined Sasan Gir National Park boundaries. The stable population even prompted the International Union for conservation of Nature (IUCN) to de-list the threatened status of Asiatic lions from Critically Endangered to Endangered. However, bigger family means the need for a bigger home and that is what may trigger an array of other concerns.
Officials believe there are 114 lions at present, out of the 411 counted in 2010, that live outside the known lion territories. It is only the upcoming 2015 lion population census though that would ascertain the exact number and expanded habitat of the mega predator. Meanwhile, in a country of 1.2 billion humans, where is the room to grow? Rise in conflict
In mid-January this year, a goods train mowed down two lionesses 30 km from the Gir forest. Last year, a male lion cub was killed on the same route. With more than 100,000 people sharing the same resources and land with the Asiatic Lion, conflicts between the local villagers and the animal is inevitable. Although, public support has been one of the biggest advantages for the successful protection of the wild predator in the state. But, will it continue if territorial conflicts become much more frequent and livestock loss a daily routine?
Also, unlike the Gir sanctuary, forest officers do not patrol the area outside the protected boundaries, and the present census points that it is exactly these regions where the lion is heading to, and is also the most vulnerable. “There are heavy vehicles, including loaders, moving in the area. I have personally seen lions close to such areas,” said Mangabhai Thapa — a resident of the village who was among the first to reach the lions that were killed by the goods train.
The areas where lions are frequently seen in Saurashtra are the same where future urban development plans include more mining belts, ports, highways and industries. The need of the hour, undoubtedly, is habitat diversification and second or third population sites for the lions. The Nawab of Junagadh did give the dying lions a second chance at life, but to truly give the animal its lost regal stature, it is necessary now to allow it to peacefully expand its kingdom.