Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The King is on the brink




AS long as can be remembered, the earthshaking roar of a mighty lion has made big and small creatures tremble or run away. Aristotle wrote about this phenomenon in the first millennium BC when travelling through the Balkans. King Xerxes of Persia, advancing towards Macedonia, stood stunned when the sound preceded an attack on his entourage's camels. Striking with their paws, the lions tore into the beasts of burden and bloodied the desert sands.


From early history, lions have been figures of authority. They have been celebrated in folklore, epic tales, religious texts, children's stories, and in a rich array of visual arts from Mauryan seals to Mughal paintings. Their strength and grace and power are upheld in India's national emblem, the Ashoka pillar. More than 2,000 years ago when the image was engraved into the pillar at Sarnath, Emperor Ashoka added a message advocating non-violence, tolerance and respect for all living creatures.


Unfortunately this message to respect and protect animals has been long lost in the winds of time. Even the best prides of lion haven't been able to survive the tumultuous changes in their environment and man's direct onslaughts. Perhaps the peak of such destruction was in the 19th century when shikars and adventure seekers went after the `royal game'.


Today the African lion is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and two of its subspecies, the Barbary lion and Cape lion, have long vanished. In India, a subspecies that split from the African lion some 100,000 years ago is facing an uncertain future.


The last of the Asiatic lions, Panthera leo persica, and its prey survive in the shrinking tracts of mixed dry deciduous and teak forests of Gir and its surroundings in Saurastra, Gujarat. Spread over 1,400 sq km, the habitat is home not just to the Asiatic lion but also to the highest concentration of top carnivores such as leopards, jungle cats, cheetahs, rusty spotted cat and the single largest concentration of marsh crocodiles in the country.


Amid them, throughout the forest, are dwellings, cultivated land and cattle of some 2,000 Maldharis or nomadic herders and small communities of `Siddhi' Muslims. The days when writer and photographer E.P. Gee observed young cubs accompany their parents on hunting forays are long gone. The jungle setting is fast changing even though it is now called the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary.


The forest is alive with the sounds of birdsong, wild creatures and insects. Often, you'll also hear the chugging of freight trains, trucks labouring in second gear, automobiles whizzing by, temple bells, chants and devotional music, jeeps ferrying tourists and the ubiquitous Bollywood din.


If these traumatic happenings are not enough, the denizens of Gir face other dangers and threats. Poachers prowl the sanctuary. A lucrative international market awaits blood, entrails, bones, claws, skull and every part of the lion. Hundreds of unguarded open wells act as traps. Vehicles on the seven state highways (totalling 600 km of road that criss-cross the sanctuary) and trains between Visavadar and Veraval (that pass through 15 km of the jungle) frequently mow down the lions.


Within the lion community, consanguinity is leading to genetic regression, low birth and high infant mortality. People have encroached into the habitat. With buildings and an unabated tourist and pilgrim flow, the tree cover has reduced considerably and impacted the numbers of chital, sambar, nilgai, hare and wild boar. Consequently, lions have less prey and often attack the Maldharis' livestock. Right from the Nawabi days, the cattle herders have been compensated for this loss.


In a bid to avoid man-animal conflict, the Gujarat Forest Department has been trying to relocate the forest people to specially allotted land outside the sanctuary. The herders are reluctant to abandon their traditional homes and animal husbandry practices. They find it difficult to adapt to agricultural life outside the forest, which is largely based on commercial agriculture — groundnuts, mango and cotton. The few Maldharis who have tried their hand at this have been unsuccessful. And their cattle grazing practices outside the forest have also come a cropper, as they have to deal with rough elements, encroachments and privatisation.


On the other hand, if the Maldharis do pack up and leave the sanctuary, the forest will be bereft of buffaloes that presently form about a third of the lion's `prey'. The cattle also contribute to the delicate forest ecosystem. The dung helps grass grow. And the grass sustains the buffaloes. As a result, the cattle herders are seen as an essential component of the Gir forest ecosystem.


But one of the world's foremost authorities on the Asiatic Lion, Dr. Ravi Chellam has another view. "Over the years, the number of wild prey increased dramatically after some Maldhari villages were relocated and the national park was created. Gradually the lions have changed from being mainly livestock feeders to wild prey feeders."


Apart from the traditional forest dwellers, other people have started to settle in the park's periphery. This has led to much construction, erection of electric fences and urbanisation. The shrines that dot the sanctuary have been attracting more than 2,50,000 pilgrims annually. Tourist lodges, guesthouses and five-star hotels have sprung up. As a result an increasing number of visitors visit the sanctuary.


The ensuing environmental pollution and intrusion are taking their toll, scaring away lions or cramping their life style. With diminishing territory, the feline is fighting with its back to the wall and, when all else fails, moving out of the coastal forests. Much to the anguish of conservationists, environmentalists and the Forest Department, the King has been spotted in the most unlikely places. Hapless prides of lion stalking deserted beaches in the Gulf of Khambhat and the Arabian Sea are now common.


Right from Ashoka to Nawab Rasulkhanji of Junagadh, many rulers made a concerted effort to save India's lions. Now as Panthera leo persica clings on to an almost impossibly small piece of its former domain, is it not the turn of our present rulers to do their bit? With the help of experts, both from the public and private domain, and importantly political will, it is possible to bring the Gir lion from the brink to its full majestic splendour.

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