Gir National Park in Gujarat is the lone abode of Asiatic lions in the wild. A combined effort of local communities and the forest department has helped in raising the population of the majestic cat to 674. In 1913, their numbers had dropped to a mere 20
As the world marks International Lion Day, India has 674 reasons to smile.
As per the last count carried out in 2020, the country boasted of having 674 Asiatic Lions in the country, found in only one place – the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat and its surrounding areas.
This is a roaring success for conservationists and wildlife activists as the numbers have risen from 523 — an increase rate of 28.87 per cent, the highest so far.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also applauded the efforts of all those included by tweeting: “Kudos to the people of Gujarat and all those whose efforts have led to this excellent feat. Over the last several years, the lion population in Gujarat has been steadily rising. This is powered by community participation, emphasis on technology, wildlife healthcare, proper habitat management and steps to minimise human-lion conflict. Hope this positive trend continues.”
Two very good news:
Population of the majestic Asiatic Lion, living in Gujarat’s Gir Forest, is up by almost 29%.
Geographically, distribution area is up by 36%.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 10, 2020
Let’s take a closer look at how the Asiatic Lion has been brought back from the brink of extinction and the role of the Gir National park in the conservation efforts.
The Asiatic Lions
The Asiatic Lion, also known as Panthera leo leo, today survives in the wild only in India. However, that was not always the case. In the past, Asiatic lions were found in most of southwest Asia and a large part of the Indian subcontinent.
“Historically, Asiatic lions roamed over the entire Indo-Gangetic plains, from Sindh in the west to Bihar in the east,” said Asiatic Lion: A success story — Recapturing the lost kingdom, a report by the Gujarat forest department.
But hunting and encroachment led to their population shrinking, putting them on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list.
By the turn of the 19th century, large scale hunting of lions by Indian maharajas and British officers wiped out lions from most of North India. They were hunted to extinction through the decades; in Sindh and Jharkhand by 1810s, in Eastern Gujarat by 1820s, in Madhya Pradesh by 1860s, in Rajasthan by 1870s and then from North Gujarat in the 1880s.
As a result, by the turn of the century, the only known lions in the subcontinent were in the forest of South Kathiard, parts of which were located in the princely state of Junagadh.
The Nawabs of Junagadh
It is not known to many but foundation of the Gir National Park of Gujarat, which is today considered the standard bearer for conservation of Asiatic Lions, was laid by the Nawabs of the erstwhile princely state of Junagadh.
Historians report that Junagadh was among the earliest in India to make laws for the conservation and protection of the Asiatic lion.
The first significant effort at conserving these lions came from the sixth Nawab Mahabat Khanji II (1851-1888) in 1879. Angered at dwindling sightings of lions in his territory, he issued a set of rules which banned all forms of hunting and trapping of the animal unless they received specific permission from the state.
However neighbouring princes and British officials continued to pursue these lions. The next significant order came from the Nawab Rasul Khanji (1892-1911) in 1892, who banned the killing of the peacocks and passed a set of rules that basically stated that lions “could only be shot by special permission of the state for special reasons and circumstances,” according to this article in the Conservation and Society journal.
But the hunting continued, forcing Nawab Rasul Khanji to write a letter to Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1901, making a case for the protection of the “noble race.”
The next Nawab took forward the work done by his father before him. Nawab Mahabatkhanji III refused to allow all requests for hunts. He continued to protect his lions until October 1947, when he acceded his kingdom to the Government of India and moved to Pakistan (with his 200 dogs but without any of his wives). When he left, he left his lions unprotected.
Only home to Asiatic lions
In 1965, the Indian Forest Service took notice of the dwindling numbers of the lion and set up a wildlife conservation programme for Asiatic lions in 1965 and made the Nawab’s beloved Gir a Wildlife Sanctuary.
Thanks to the untiring efforts, the lion population has seen an increase from 177 at the start of the programme to 359 in 2005 and 674 in 2020.
The credit for Gir being a model of conservation can be attributed to many factors, including the participation of locals and the elaborate rescue operation by the forest department.
The local communities in and around Gir have extended their full patronage to protecting the lion subspecies. They follow a sentiment of ‘saavaj che to ame chye, ame chye to saavaj che’ (we thrive since the lion thrives and vice versa). They also understand that their economic livelihood is connected with the protection of the lion.
Another factor for flourishing of lions here is the elaborate rescue operation. Unlike other protected areas where the forest department does not medically intervene and lets the animals have the natural course of life, the Gir officials provide medical assistance. So much so that they have opened a rehabilitation centre at Sasan-Gir, where ailing lions are treated, rehabilitated and reunited with their pride.
The forest department officials also have a very detailed method of keeping tabs on the lions. They carry out hourly patrols where teams of guards send out daily ‘Sinh Avlokan report’ (daily lion sighting report) to the range and divisional offices, which include GPS readings, lion activity, uncommon movement towards village, pride numbers etc.
Successive state governments have also played an important role in the conservation efforts, by extending their support. For instance, when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, he set up a special lion conservation team with immediate sanctioning of a separate budget, envisaging provisions for long term conservation of the species.
Not without problems
Despite the many successes of the Gir National Park in saving the Asiatic lion, there are many challenges ahead.
There are concerns that restricting all the lions in one area makes them vulnerable to many threats such as disease or natural disaster.
Conservationists have expressed concern that an outbreak of disease in Gir could have a grave impact on the cats, all concentrated in one area.
Also, the expanding number of lions are now finding the Gir forests to be small. Gir has become overcrowded which is leading to infighting and forcing the territorial animals to look for new territory.
These concerns have led activists to propose a new home for the ‘king of the jungle’.
In April 2013, the Supreme Court ordered Gujarat to give lions to Madhya Pradesh within the next six months to save them from possible extinction in case of any catastrophe like an epidemic, a large forest fire and also to increase the genetic pool. However, no action has been taken on the matter.
In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Project Lion. As part of this plan, six sites apart from the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh were identified for the relocation of the lions.
However, Gujarat, who considers the lions are the ‘pride of the state’ has been against the relocation to other states and has prepared a fresh plan to move the animals to the state’s Badra Wildlife Sanctuary and other areas.
According to a report in The Indian Express, an announcement is expected that Project Lion will focus on “assisted natural dispersal across Saurashtra” — and potentially to Rajasthan by the time India celebrates 100 years of Independence in 2047.
With inputs from agencies
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