The lion—the world’s second largest cat—was once one of the world’s most wide-ranging large mammals, just like the much smaller mountain lion ranged throughout much of the land masses of the Western Hemisphere. Like the mountain lion, the Asiatic lion has disappeared from much of its historic range, which was once spread over two continents and a number of Afro-Asian countries.
In India, the lions once abounded western, eastern, northern and central India. So abundant was the lion in the country that during the rebellion of 1857, a single British officer shot as many as 300 of them! As forested areas contracted and their prey-base became depleted, the lions resorted to occasional cattle lifting. Sadly, the poisoning of cattle carcasses by the villagers wiped out entire prides and drove the Asiatic lions to the brink of extinction.
The ‘King of the Jungle’ is no longer found in North Africa and the nominate subspecies is considered regionally extinct in West Africa by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
India’s lions were once found in other northwestern and central Indian states, but now the four subpopulations of this remnant feline subspecies exist primarily in one National Park—the Gir Forest. The Gir Forest is a dry deciduous forest, and considered by wildlife authorities to be one of the most important protected ecosystems in all of South Asia.
Only a quarter of the extant Asiatic lion population lives outside the protected Gir Forest, but the subspecies still remains highly imperiled and nearly extinct. The Asiatic lion’s official conservation status has not changed in recent years, despite the fact it has received government protection since 1965.
As per the census carried out in 2010, 411 Asiatic lions were accounted for in the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. This is great news as the population now doubles the number of individuals counted in a 1974.
To further the legacy of this magnificent cat through conservation breeding and also to provide the visitors with an opportunity to view Asiatic Lions from close quarters, the Government of Uttar Pradesh is in the process of developing a lion safari in the city of Etawah. The safari project has been strategically placed such that it is most accessible to India’s suburban residents and tourists alike. It is situated 120 km from Agra, home of the famed Taj Mahal and is also in proximity to other major cities such as Gwalior, Kanpur and Lucknow. It will serve as a fantastic eco-tourism destination for the millions of visitors to Agra.
While some Afro-Asian countries, like Iran, celebrated the demise of the lion, their national symbol, India has embraced an opportunity to recover the Endangered lion subspecies and indeed these great felids are making quite the comeback.
I learned that the project is the brainchild of Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and was actually conceptualized seven years ago. However, the conservation initiative has only come to fruition because of the keen interest shown by Mr. Yadav’s son Akhilesh, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The safari’s locale has a rich and intriguing agricultural and economic history. In the late nineteenth century, the erstwhile collector of the region, J.F. Fisher, convinced the farming communities near Etawah to relinquish their private land so that plantations could be developed for their benefit and that of India’s commerce. In return for receiving the profits accrued from the plantations, the farmers would incur the expenses associated with the development of the large scale agro-business. The land was eventually planted with a number of indigenous silvicultural species.
Among several botanicals, one called Babool (Acacia nilotica) was seeded on the fertile soil. The bark of Babool is used in leather tanning industry. The cultivation of this species turned out to be most rewarding. The land was ultimately leased by a leather manufacturing company as consequence of such abundant success with the Babool.
In due time, earthen check dams were also built in the region. The area was gradually enriched with the introduction of broadleaved species. So scenic was the landscape that the British built a picnic spot on a high mound, of which remnants exist even to date.
Over the next few decades, the area was subjected to heavy grazing and other biotic activities. Hence, the forest suffered massive degradation and the area was essentially rendered a ravine due to severe erosion. Prosopis juliflora, an exotic botanical, was introduced in the area in the eighties as a soil binding species. The plant grew to epic proportions and ultimately over-competed with all other native vegetation thereby attaining the status of a weed.
The work on the Lion Safari officially commenced in May of 2012 under the supervision of my friend and colleague, Indian Forest Service Officer, Sujoy Banerjee. Sujoy is a highly esteemed conservationist in South Asia and known for his progressive and innovative thinking within the global conservation arena.
An awardee of prestigious British and US government scholarship and leadership programs (i.e., The Chevening Scholarship of the UK International Visitors’ Leadership Program of the United States), Sujoy played a major role in preparing the Master Plan of the Lion Safari. He was also instrumental in preparing detailed designs of its layout, conservation breeding center, animal holding areas and veterinary facilities, which were accorded approval by the Central Zoo Authority.
“Removing the Prosopis juliflora was the biggest challenge we faced at the time the project started in May, 2012” said Sujoy Banerjee. “Prosopis is not only a very good coppice and grows in very adverse and low moisture conditions, and therefore, very obstinate as far as the removal of this invasive species is concerned. It was decided at that time that this species would be removed through mechanical means, that is, by uprooting entire trees, including the roots by JCB machines” he said.
The area of the safari was simultaneously developed into a habitat for the lions. According to Sujoy, “To improve the soil and moisture conditions of the area, earthen check dams were built to check the flow of rain water to allow it to percolate into the Earth.” The earthen dams were seeded to reduce the effect of soil erosion and enhance the longevity of the structures. Seed sowing was also performed on staggered contour trenches with an annual grass called Dinanath grass (Pennisetum pedicellatum).
The effect of seed sowing was quite evident after the first rains in the summer of 2012. The ten hectares of area that had been cleared for the project had formed a lush green carpet of grass. As the rains gave way to winter, the grass dried up forming a thick cover that retained moisture. As a result, stagnant water could be seen in the month of May of the following year, the peak of the summer season! This quieted the critics of the Lion Safari who believed that the area could never be revived to the extent that it would be made fit as habitat for lions.
Subsequently, an area of another 100 ha has been developed into a viable habitat for the lions. Planting of enrichment botanicals (about 20 trees per ha of local tree species) was carried out to provide shade structures for the lions.
The local people are quite amazed at the transformation of the landscape with ravines converted into lush green grasslands. The project area has already witnessed the presence of an antelope species called Neelgai meaning “Blue bull” (Bosephalus tragocamelus) and Cheetal deer (Axis axis). A place where people avoided out of fear of being looted or mugged is now being thronged by local people in large numbers as a recreational destination. The safari, itself, provides a panoramic view of the landscape. One could say that tourists have already started visiting!
The backbone of this project will be the Asiatic Lion Breeding Center. Configured like a fan to accommodate four breeding Asiatic Lions simultaneously, each population will have dedicated quarter hectare of paddock (open area). Two pairs of genetically pure Asiatic Lions have already been procured and are presently being housed in two zoos in the state. More lions will be brought from Gujarat in due course of time.
The Lion Safari Project will be one of a kind in Northern India. Planned over an area of 350 hectares, it will include a 50-hectare exhibition area for the Asiatic lions. The perimeter of the enclosure will be secured by an 18 ft high retaining wall. Entry to the exhibit will be in specially designed vehicles that would allow the visitors to have a close view of the lions ensuring their own safety at the same time. The fence would have a solar power fencing to contain the noble beasts. A road network of four and a half kilometers will also provide a wonderful experience of the “Chambal ravines” that the area is famous for.
The project also has a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, which will be well equipped to cater to all health, nutrition and treatment related needs of the lions. It will be equipped to handle all pathological, radiological and other clinical tests required for the optimal healthcare of the wild animals.
The lions will be housed in animal houses or holding areas. Two animal houses have been proposed to accommodate the residents. The lions will be released in the open exhibit area in the morning and will be housed in the animal houses after closing of the park.
To ensure the safety of the lions as well as the visitors, a patrol road has been proposed. This vehicle accessible (jeepable) road will allow the park management to conduct daily patrols to check for any breaches in the perimeter fencing. There is also an internal patrolling path provided for to allow the maintenance of fences as may be required.
The visitors will have plenty to see and enjoy. The entrance will be theme-based and will convey a conservation sensitive message on Asia’s lions so that the visitor is introduced to the philosophy of the project at the very outset. There will be a modern interpretation center, which will serve to educate the visitors about wildlife conservation and also provide plenty of information through audio-visual media.
There will also be a library where visitors can gain access to literary resources concerning these carnivores and other native wildlife species. Films relating to conservation and wildlife will be available for patron screening. In addition, there will be a souvenir shop, a canteen and other basic facilities for visitors to the complex. And of course, the center will be landscaped to improve the aesthetics of the area.
The architect of the project, Pravesh Bansal is a young man of 23 years with lots of ideas and aspiration for this ambitious project.
Mr. Akhilesh Yadav, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and his father, Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, visited the Lion Safari in October last year to take stock of the progress of work. They left very satisfied with the progress of the work.
The efforts of Government of Uttar Pradesh in making this facility better is reflected in the fact that a group of senior officers of Government of Uttar Pradesh led by the State Minister for Zoological Parks Dr. S.P. Yadav visited various safari parks and zoos in the United Kingdom with the intentions to incorporate the best design and management practices in the project.
Principal Secretary, Forests, Mr. V.N. Garg, Secretary to Chief Minister, Mr. Shambhu Singh Yadav and Mr. Rupak De, Chief Wildlife Warden were among the members of the delegation. Following up on their commitment to the project, the Government of Uttar Pradesh has now posted a Conservator of Forest as the in-charge personnel of the Lion Safari Project.
The Lion Safari Project of Uttar Pradesh, once completed, will be a splendid opportunity for visitors, both national and international, to have a sighting of these glorious wild beasts from close quarters. It will also serve to create a repository of genes of Asiatic Lions, which will be a major step towards the survival of this species in captivity.