By Dhurjoti Bhattacharya
By any standard, the story of the Asiatic lions in the Gir Forests of Gujarat can be dubbed as a conservation success. Their numbers have risen steadily— from 20 lions in 1913 to 523 this year. So much so, it has become a tight existence in the 1,412-sq km swathe of forests across Amreli and Junagarh districts of Gujarat, which the Asiatic lions call home. The lions from Gir are now moving out, straying well beyond the designated protected area.
One of the factors that have made Gir a revival success story is the relatively conflict-free cohabitation of humans and lions. With their numbers rising, this model of peaceful coexistence will be seriously strained. In the long run, as the lions move into areas dominated by human habitation, the instances of conflict could rise.
There are more immediate concerns. Lions straying out of the sanctuary face dangers like being trapped in floods, getting hit by speeding vehicles, or they become targets of human action. The warning signs of the impending crisis are already there. As many as 13 lions died in the recent flash floods in the Shetrunji river in Amreli district. "The river is infamous for sudden floods. The herd of lions got caught in one of these," said an Amreli resident.
Gir's revival can be attributed to a multi-pronged strategy—the firm implementation of wildlife protection laws, swift compensation for the cattle or other casualties caused by lions, and a strong network of NGOs working to raise awareness about conservation.
"People have been made to understand that harming lions would definitely land them behind bars," says Junagarh-based former journalist and lion enthusiast Sibte Hussain Bukhari. "The speed with which the forest department provides compensations helps keep tempers in check."
Success comes with its own problems. The Gir Forest is unable to sustain the steadily increasing numbers. The informal lion habitat area has doubled—from 10,000 sq km in 2010 to 20,000 sq km in 2015. During this period, some 1,500 villages in eight of the nine districts of Saurashtra region have become part of the lion habitat. If this growth in lion population sustains, then instances of man-animal conflicts will increase. The strategies that have been effective are unlikely to be successful as more and more villages become part of the informal lion habitat.
The signs of a crisis in the making are already there. "There is one significant fact about the recent lion deaths: none of these occured in the sanctuary area," said a source from the area.
Why are the lions straying out? Is it the search for food? Senior forest officials say that there is no dearth of its prey within the sanctuary. What takes the lion out of the sanctuary across the Saurashtra region is its inherently expansionist character. "This is a good sign, the lions spilling over signifies that their numbers are rising. But it also puts the onus on us to be more alert and responsive," said a senior forest official.
Faiyaz Barejiya, a resident of Chitravad Gir village, about 10 km from the Gir Forest, argues that lions move out of the protected area because they are innately "lazy". "A lion", says Barejiya,"prefers an easy prey like a cow or buffalo for food rather than hunt down a deer or neelgai". He says that lions regularly make their way into villages,"drink water, make a kill and leave". This could provide a plausible explanation for the rising incidence of lions being hit by speeding trains and vehicles. Since January 2014, as many as 10 lions have been killed in"road accidents".
Dr CN Pandey, the principal chief conservator of forest, Gujarat, acknowledges that protecting the lions has become more challenging over the years. "There have been a number of lion deaths on railway tracks, so we have initiated fencing along the tracks," Pandey said.
The department is making several "positive interventions" in the areas outside the sanctuary where the big cats are settling. "We are developing water bodies in the areas where they may need water holes, working with NGOs to raise the awareness level of the people, and trying to bring down the response time in case of a rescue operation or a man-animal conflict situation," Pandey said.