Friday, August 28, 2015

Gir villages take pride in their lions

AHMEDABAD: In the past decade, there has been a 4-fold increase in the lion territory in Gujarat. Villagers living on the periphery of Gir sanctuary take pride in the growth of the lion population in their area. Barring one incident of poaching in 2007 and five deaths by electrocution, the big cats have been, by and large, safe areas adjoining Gir.

Forest department officials concede that it is only because of the people living around Gir that the lions are safe outside the sanctuary. On August 10, the world celebrates World Lion Day with this year's campaign theme being, 'Saving the King of Beasts to Save Ourselves'.

The people of Saurashtra have looked after the big cats as their own and have even sacrificed their cattle for them. In an unusual show of affection for the big cats, people of Amreli organized a prayer meeting after 13 lions were washed away in the flash floods that hit the district recently.

Earlier, in 2013, the people of Kakrach (also in Amreli district) had launched an agitation after their 'Rajmata,' a radio-collared lioness, had wandered away from the area. It was later spotted in Gondal.

"The forest department captured the lioness, gave it a new radio-collar, and kept it in the zoo," said Manoj Joshi, trustee of Pariyavaran Samiti in the area. "But the local residents went to the forest office and urged the officials to free the lioness."

Even the panchayat passed a resolution and forced the forest department to free the lioness. The lioness is now 14 years old and still lives in the area.

Deputy conservator of forests Anshuman Sharma said that there have been instances where the farmers had told the forest officials not to capture the lioness as it acted like a security guard, protecting them from other wild animals, including the neelgai.

"I was once on patrolling duty when I was told by a farmer not to disturb the lioness as it was protecting his field," said Sharma. "The farmer told me that if the lioness leaves the village, he would have to hire a man to keep watch on the field at night."

Praveen Singh, who has made a documentary for a wildlife channel, on lions living outside the sanctuary, said that the big cats seemed to be doing quite well as the people seemed to trust them.

"There may be an incident or two of lion-related violence in a year but, by and large, most people take pride in the fact that the lions live among them," said Singh. "The farmers are positive about it. Many of them say that if the lions are there, deer won't come to their fields. So it is a symbiotic relationship in a way. They can sleep soundly at night."

Growing kingdom:

Of the 523 lions in the state, 211 are in Amreli and Bhavnagar district alone. This is around 40% of the total lion population of Gujarat. Officials say that, in 2005, lions were found only in an area of 5,000sqkm. This had increased to 10,000sqkm in 2010 and, in 2015, lions are found over 22,000sqkm.

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