Love for lions
Conservation biologist Dr. Ravi Chellam talks about his experiences at Gir and the proposed translocation of some lions to Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
'Has a lion ever tried to attack you?' questions a curious little boy. "About two dozen times," answers Dr. Ravi Chellam, lion expert, while addressing a meeting of the Voices of the Wild (VOW). "If a lion wags its tail, it should be taken as a warning. They also give a low growl sometimes." The world's last population of Asiatic lions in Gir, Gujarat, are close to Ravi's heart and his subject of study for the last 30 years. But Gir is no more their only refuge, he says, as over 100 of them have spilled over and found homes in the patches of forests surrounding the sanctuary.
Ravi is an authority on the behavioural patterns, lifestyle and habitat of the Asiatic lions. He has radio-collared, monitored and studied them in close proximity. "Lions are the only social cats. They live in small or medium prides, typically headed by a large female lion," explains Ravi. "The males are loners or sometimes form two-member coalitions and patrol their territory regularly. Fierce fights and grave injuries are common," he says showing photographs.
Though Gir is rich and self-sustained, Ravi suggests translocation of some lions to avoid over-concentration in a single place. Gir at present is home to 400 lions. After legal tangles spanning 20 years, the translocation project was finally cleared by the Supreme Court last August.
Ravi cautions against a possible outbreak of canine distemper and an increased probability of man-animal conflict if action is not taken soon. "The current situation at Gir is like having too many eggs in a single basket. If the basket breaks, we will lose everything," he says. "There are roads, rail-lines and buses that pass through Gir and the lions move in and out constantly and are in contact with humans more than before."
Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh has been identified as the most viable place for introducing lions. Though Kuno acts as the buffer zone for the Tigers of Ranthambore, Ravi believes it would hardly affect the lions. "Tigers and lions have co-existed before. Translocation is like a life-insurance we buy for the lions of Gir, so that in case of calamities we will still have a separate population of lions unaffected," he asserts. Kuno has many features similar to Gir – like burgeoning prey population of chital, sambar and wild buffaloes, a deciduous landscape of grasslands expanding over 1,500 sq.kms and ample water resource from the Chambal river.
According to studies carried out by Ravi and other researchers, the dietary composition of the Gir lions has changed phenomenally over the years. "In the 70's, it was found that over 75 per cent of the lions' diet comprised livestock. Whereas, in 1993, a study revealed that wild prey formed more than 70 percent of the food the lions ate," observes Ravi. He says removing livestock from Gir is not a good idea, as cows and buffaloes still form over 30 per cent of the lions' diet.
"The native tribal people have always had a better understanding of wildlife than people like us," says Ravi. "Most instances of man-animal conflict involve outsiders and not the tribals. In India, it is difficult to cut off human interaction with the wild."
In the case of Gir, the Maldhari tribals who are primarily cattle-herders live in harmony with the lions. Their livestock is a prey base for the beast. "Moving them out will not help the lions much. Instead, unnecessary intrusion from outside should be kept under check."