Monday, June 28, 2010

Experience of Counting Lions at Gir 2010

Experience of Counting Lions at Gir 2010
By Pradip Thakkar – Participant !!

Lately, I have been counting sheep in my cozy air-conditioned bedroom of a Bangalore suburb after a long hectic day, pondering over project deadlines and unfinished technical discussions of the day. Typical of an IT professional in Bangalore. When I received a letter from Conservator of Forests granting my application for participation as a volunteer for a 2010 Census of Asiatic Lions at Gir National Park, I was excited at the idea of trading my long daily commutes on traffic-congested roads for walks in the wild looking for wildlife. Gir National Park – last abode of Asiatic Lion – conducts census (counting) of lions every five years. Per the last estimate, the number of lions exceeded 350 in this 1400 sq km sanctuary with core National Park area of over 250 sq km. It was time again to find how conservation efforts have fared for wildlife. And that would be Lion Census 2010 conducted from April 23-27. Health and population demographics of predator at the top-of-the-food-chain are a good indicator of health of habitat as well as co-habitants especially prey animals.
Among five species of lions that existed until recently – two – Barbary Lion (of Atlas Mountains in North Africa) and Cape Lion (South Africa) have been extinct in wild. A few specimens survive in captivity. While populations of other two species of African lions are sizable, they are dwindling. Asiatic Lion (the fifth and only species of Asian Lion) once roamed from southern Europe to eastern part of India through Middle-East, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and northern India. Our generation, being witness to past and present of wildlife decimation, such conservation efforts are of prime importance. And with that zeal and gratitude for being selected to participate, I headed off to Gir National Park in Saurashtra peninsula of Gujarat state – last home of Asiatic Lion. After a direct two and half hour evening flight and eight hours on the road – I reached Sasan Gir (Headquarter of Gir National Park) at four o'clock in the morning. Excitement was in the air even in wee hours of the morning with many volunteers that arrived previous evening. And there, echoes of lions roaring piercing through the silence of night. Well, these roars were from animals receiving medical care in state-of-the-art veterinary hospital located next to "Sinh Sadan" (A Jungle Lodge run by Government).
Sinh Sadan was the center of all activities for Lion Census 2010. Right on time, desks were set-up for registration where badges and kits were issued along with instructions for participation. Kits contained a bag-packs stuffed with dry foods, water bottles, hygienic needs (e.g. soap, etc.), T-shirt, cap, stationary (pencils, note-pads, etc.) and one camera per team. Volunteers were split in groups of three and each group was assigned a "range". Each range is looked after regularly by a forest officer with his team of beat-guards. This team of conservators regularly check on wild animals, provide medical care (if need be) to them and apply/enforce regulations that protect against encroachments, disturbances and more importantly poaching. After a nice lunch, each group of volunteers was escorted in open safari vehicle by respective range officer to the assigned range. Once we reached our location, the fun began. That was a start of our long three day journey into forest looking for "Savaj" as the locals call their beloved beast.
For three nights and two days, volunteers lived and moved around with forest ranger and beat-guards throughout the days and nights. Summer days under hot sun and cool nights under moon-light looking for clues to locate lions in the range. Clues include pug-marks, scats, listening for alarm calls of herbivores and roars of lions. Each range constitute of several square kilometers. Due to summer season, the rivers had mostly receded into large puddles and green trees with shades only to be found only on river banks. The king of beasts hunts in cooler weather of night or early morning and rests under a shade of a tree near water during the day. That makes the task of location somewhat manageable. During the day, we tirelessly hiked in river beds checking under shades of surrounding trees near water holes and looking for recent pug-marks. At night, we moved around listening to alarm calls of herbivores and roars of lions. When we tired, we re-tired. Resting under shadow of a tree in the day time and sleeping in open plains or on a "machan" under a moon light at night with one of us staying awake taking turns to be a look-out. While a fabulous bird-paradise in day time, night turns into purrs, hoots, roars, screeches, screams, yelps and rustlings.
We sighted several lions (volunteers are not allowed to disclose the count) – several resting under shaded trees in day time – and a few moving about near water holes at night time. We saw few leopards, many bird species, some reptiles (Russell 's viper and Crocodile) and many herbivores of different kinds – spotted dear, sambar deer, blue-bull and so on.
The method of counting lions was transparent where volunteers along with ranger and beat-guards submit pictures and reports (time, GPS location, identification marks, etc.) for each sighting to Conservator of Forest after primary and secondary counts were completed. This input is cross-verified with inputs from other teams of volunteers/ranger/beat-guards to make sure that same lion is not counted twice as it may move across the range. Method used for counting is reliable as it is based on uniquely identifying each animal with GPS location and time of sighting.
The most memorable experience of this trip to Gir was the interaction with locals. They are the strongest asset for conservation – both for conservators and lions. It is no surprise as to why Asiatic lion has not only survived but also thrived in this part of the world while being extinct everywhere else. Love for the beast is the religion of locals, no matter which part of Gir you are in. Lion is their beloved animal and despite loss of their live-stock as prey, they fiercely protect, advocate and champion conservation. I have not seen such dedication to conservation among locals in any part of the world let alone in India. Saurashtra and Savaj are synonymous. In long tradition from days of King Ashoka through Nawab of Junagadh, Asiatic Lion has found sanctuary in Gir. And in post-independence India, in my humble opinion, conservation at Gir National Park – with credit to both government agencies and locals – is a model to be followed for rest of India.
Notes: As I have visited Gir on several occasions prior to Census 2010 with research interests – following two are my crucial observations that could use further investigation as a research topic for doctoral candidates in Zoology.

1. After careful review/observation of physical traits of several lions in and around Gir National Park and Sanctuary, I have come to believe that there are at least two sub-species of this magnificent beast generally categorized as a single species of Panthera Leo Persica. The key difference in physical appearance is marked by size of the head and structure of the body. I categorize the lions that I have observed thus far into two distinct physical traits: One set of lions with larger "head size-to-body length" ratio with shorter body length from head-to-tail, and another set of lions with smaller "head size-to-body length" ratio with longer body length from head-to-tail. Even local folk-lore supports this thought of possible two distinct sub-species with anecdotal terms such as "Gadhado" and "Veliyo". Unlike in Africa where sub-species are separated by large distance, in Gir due to compressed geography, there may have been some natural cross-breeding among these sub-species. Further investigation of this conjecture of possible two sub-species of Panthera Leo Persica requires genetic and skeletal studies of samples from farther fringes of Gir National Park and Sanctuary where feature differentiation may be more pronounced.

2. Not in too distant past, Gir National Park and Sanctuary were inhabited by jungle-dwelling cattle headers locally named "Mal-dhaari". Their small habitations locally named "Nes" dotted across the forest lands. They lived in co-habitation with lions and other wildlife of Gir. Their cattle grazed in the forests and often attacked/killed by lions. As the conservation movement grew stronger and more organized with backing of government as well as foreign agencies such as WWF, the co-habitation of Mal-dhaari and Lions was viewed as "Man-Animal" conflict and it was deemed necessary to remove human presence (Mal-dhaari) from Gir. It was deemed that reduced or no human presence is conducive to wild-life growth. This seems intuitively right conservation step in interest of wildlife.
Due to fantastic conservation efforts, while overall lion population has increased significantly over past decades, there seems to be an uneven distribution of lion population density across Gir National Park and Sanctuary. Decades after removal of Mal-dhaari from some ranges of Gir, in my observation result achieved is reverse of the intention. And here is one plausible theory as to why removal of Mal-dhaari may have been detrimental to lion population density in respective range. Lion is an animal of savannah and not of thick forest. Lion's hunting style is not of a stealth-mode like that of tiger or leopard. Mal-dhaari cattle grazing kept forest floor clear of growth in these ranges and hence they were savannah with open plains and grass-lands. Also, lions found easier prey among Mal-dhaari cattle. Once Mal-dhaari and cattle were removed out of some ranges of Gir, the forest vegetation patterns there have changed.  It has turned into thick forest not quite suitable for hunting practice of a lion. Many parts of these forest thickets have thorny bushes and hence not conducive to hunting by chase. It is more conducive to stealth-mode hunting - like that of a leopard. While I do not have exact range-by-range break-down of changes in vegetation patterns and corresponding lion-count of Gir for past decades, such data can be obtained under research permit and studied for correlation. Anecdotal data suggests that ranges where Mal-dhaari have been removed, vegetation patterns have changed along with reduction in population density of lion and increase in population density of leopards. Astute conservators must objectively look into this matter to better preserve and protect lions. Actions that seemed intuitively correct for welfare of wild-life decades ago shall be analyzed post-effect to determine further course of action. It is an open-secret among locals that lion population density has increased among areas of sanctuary with human habitation while reduced in core area with no human presence. Clearly, there is a need to study changing vegetation patterns of Gir along with shift in population density of lions in various ranges. Such study can guide continuing improvements in conservation strategies.

Pradip Thaker

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