While Gujarat may have seen an increase in the count of Asiatic lions in the Saurashtra region, as per the latest census, local communities and civil society organisations see illegal mining and rampant eco-tourism as major challenges in maintaining the numbers.
As per the 14th lion census undertaken from May 1 to May 5 by the Gujarat government, the state now has 523 Asiatic lions in Gir forest, other protected areas and revenue areas in Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts of Saurashtra region of Gujarat,
The population has risen by 112 as compared to the figure of 411 counted in 2010. According to 2015 census, there are 109 male, 201 female and 213 sub-adult (lion cubs below the age of three years) lions in the wilderness of these four districts. The corresponding numbers, according to 2010 census, were 97, 162 and 152, respectively.
According to Ashok Shrimali of SETU: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action said, "The entire belt from Rajula in Amreli district to Talala in Gir Somnath is a mining belt. Illegal mining goes on in the periphery of the sanctuary and is the biggest threat to the increasing population of lions."
"If the existing population of the pride is to be preserved, there has to be a check on 'illegal' mining that is going on in the belt," Shrimali said.
Pointing out a further threat by 'rampant' eco-tourism, Shrimali said, "Rampant eco-tourism in the vicinity of the sanctuary and adjoining revenue areas will, in the future, hamper the mating period of a lion and lioness and thereby, reduce the chance for population growth. The pride requires complete privacy when mating. This is one aspect government will have to consider while framing the policy as the state would not want to compromise on revenue front too."
Apart from reigning in eco-tourism and illegal mining, considerable effort would be required to diversify the gene pool, if a future decline has to be arrested, said Harinesh Pandya, associated with Janpath, a local civil society organisation.
"At present, the gene pool is more of lions from Gir, who have ventured to newer locations. There is a lack of genetic variability in the pride," said Pandya.
Seconding Shrimali is a senior government official in the forest department who admitted that eco-tourism, in the future, could pose a threat to the count of the lions.
"There is concern about eco-tourism but not that much in the current scenario. Tourism in Gir and surrounding areas is not unbridled. As for cases related to illegal mining, they are dealt strictly," the official said on condition of anonymity, while rejecting an outright contention about lack of genetic variability.
Officials also note the fact that an increase of 27 per cent in lion population was an evidence that the pride was responding to management practices of the state government. "Population has segregated outside the sanctuary and spread to revenue areas. And, genetic variability that is expected is taking place. Population of lions in Amreli is different from the population of lions in Gir," the government official asserted.
Other current challenge pertain to managing the populations which have spilled out to revenue areas and renewed efforts in terms of wildlife conservation and management apart from ensuring that development activities undertaken are in conformity with conservation requirements.
"Under the current scenario, we don't have adequate staff in revenue areas. Urgent attention is, therefore, required to manage the population which has spilled out to the adjoining areas of the sanctuary," the official said.
As a solution, efforts in terms of wildlife conservation and management have to be accelerated in revenue areas with lions acquiring their old areas, even as development activities will have to be undertaken in conformity with the conservation requirements of the animal. Moreover, awareness among local community would also need to be enhanced regarding the acceptability of this animal. "Even agricultural practices, for that matter, need to be altered to provide favourable habitat to the pride," the official said.
Meanwhile, pointing out the need for an integrated long-term plan for conservation of lions, Sandeep Kumar, deputy conservator of forest (DCF), Sasan Gir, said, that relief and rehabilitation of lions was important as they spread out to new areas.
"We have one of the world-class rescue, treatment and rehabilitation facilities in Gir. But, as they spread out to revenue areas, we need to ensure that our monitoring systems, with the help of forest staff and Maldharis (shepherd community), are augmented. As lions spread across 22,000 square kilometres, steps need to be taken for better habitat management, water management and creating an alternative habitat," Kumar added.