Kalyanji Bhai Jamuna Das Bhai Godhasara was plucking raw mangoes on his farmland in Dhava, a village in Gir Somnath district, on May 1 when a lioness attacked him.
Godhasara was lucky as the lioness retreated after simply injuring him. To the unaided eye, this may appear to be a case of a carnivore attacking its prey — call it man-animal conflict — as can be expected in a jungle terrain teeming with wild beasts, but the reality is just the reverse.
Villagers say that the visitors from the marriage home frequently went to see the lioness and her cubs and even threw things at her. This, the locals say, was the trigger for the lioness to attack.
Gir in the southern Saurashtra peninsula of Gujarat, which is the lone abode of the Asiatic lion in the wild — some 523 Asiatic lions live there as per the 2015 census — is otherwise a place where humans and lions live peacefully.
"Lions do not live with us. We live with the lions here. There is no question of fear [from the lions]," says Parbat Bhai Seva Bhai Chavda, a Maldhari tribal who resides in the heart of the Gir forest.
"They are our identity," adds Chavda, who owns two buffaloes and three cows. The tribal group of Maldharis ('mal' means livestock and 'dhari' protector), who are traditionally cattleherders, have been living closely with the felids for the past several decades.
"Gir lions is a remarkable conservation success story...But unless we translocate and establish at least one additional population, all the success achieved over the last 100 years may come to naught"
Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist
There are nearly 8,400 Maldharis living in the Gir Forest National Park. Around 300 Vanya Prani Mitras, or friends of the forest animals, have been recruited to ensure that the lions are not attacked if they stray into nearby villages. Incidents of lion attacks, they say, are few and far between.
But attacks on their cattle are not as infrequent. "Sometimes the beasts pick up one of our cattle — but that's their food. It does not disturb us," says Haresh Chowda, another Maldhari who runs a tea stall for tourists and owns 11 buffaloes and four cows.
Apart from the Maldharis, a group of people of African origin known as the Siddis reside on the fringes of the forest in village Jambur. They were reportedly brought by the Nawab of Junagarh from the African shores for laying railway tracks in the region. Today, they have adapted to the Gujarati culture and lifestyle. They are mostly involved in construction work by the day and dance to the African tunes by the night for tourists.
According to the 2015 census, the total lion population is up 27% from 411 in 2010. "Factors like timely rescue, improvement in habitat, water management, mitigation of man-animal conflict and more awareness among the locals have contributed to the rise in lion count," says Sandeep Kumar, deputy conservator of forests, Gir National Park and Sanctuary.
Call of the Wild
Asiatic lions once roamed from Turkey, north of Africa, Persia (Iran), Israel, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, Baluchistan, to many parts of India. In the Indian subcontinent, the carnivore lorded over Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
But rampant game hunting and killingsin Sasan-Gir, which was formerly the hunting reserve of the Nawabs of Junagarh and colonial personnel, led to a marked decline of the felid. Lions also struggled to survive one of the most severe famines between 1901 and 1905.
According to Divyabhanusinh Chavda, author of The Story of Asia's Lions, during the freedom struggle of 1857, a British officer, George Acland Smith, shot as many as 300 lions — all by himself! By 1893, the count, say records, was a dismal 18 for a single subpopulation in Gir.