Conservation of Gir lions a success; but conservationists fear risks of single-location reserves
The Economic Times
Kalyanji Bhai Jamuna Das Bhai Godhasara was plucking raw mangoes on his farmland in Dhava, a village in Gir Somnath district, on May 1 when a lioness attacked him.
Godhasara was lucky as the lioness retreated after simply injuring him. To the unaided eye, this may appear to be a case of a carnivore attacking its prey — call it man-animal conflict — as can be expected in a jungle terrain teeming with wild beasts, but the reality is just the reverse.
Locals will tell you that the lions — and lionesses — of Gir rarely attack humans unless provoked. In this case, a family in the neighbourhood of Godhasara had many visitors for a family marriage and apparently the lioness, along with her two cubs, was resting in the nearby farmland. It is not rare for the big cats to move beyond their natal territory in the 20,000 square km forests of Saurashtra and be spotted inside villages.
Villagers say that the visitors from the marriage home frequently went to see the lioness and her cubs and even threw things at her. This, the locals say, was the trigger for the lioness to attack.
Gir in the southern Saurashtra peninsula of Gujarat, which is the lone abode of the Asiatic lion in the wild — some 523 Asiatic lions live there as per the 2015 census — is otherwise a place where humans and lions live peacefully.
"Lions do not live with us. We live with the lions here. There is no question of fear [from the lions]," says Parbat Bhai Seva Bhai Chavda, a Maldhari tribal who resides in the heart of the Gir forest.
"They are our identity," adds Chavda, who owns two buffaloes and three cows. The tribal group of Maldharis ('mal' means livestock and 'dhari' protector), who are traditionally cattleherders, have been living closely with the felids for the past several decades.
"Gir lions is a remarkable conservation success story...But unless we translocate and establish at least one additional population, all the success achieved over the last 100 years may come to naught"
Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist
There are nearly 8,400 Maldharis living in the Gir Forest National Park. Around 300 Vanya Prani Mitras, or friends of the forest animals, have been recruited to ensure that the lions are not attacked if they stray into nearby villages. Incidents of lion attacks, they say, are few and far between.
But attacks on their cattle are not as infrequent. "Sometimes the beasts pick up one of our cattle — but that's their food. It does not disturb us," says Haresh Chowda, another Maldhari who runs a tea stall for tourists and owns 11 buffaloes and four cows.
Apart from the Maldharis, a group of people of African origin known as the Siddis reside on the fringes of the forest in village Jambur. They were reportedly brought by the Nawab of Junagarh from the African shores for laying railway tracks in the region. Today, they have adapted to the Gujarati culture and lifestyle. They are mostly involved in construction work by the day and dance to the African tunes by the night for tourists.
According to the 2015 census, the total lion population is up 27% from 411 in 2010. "Factors like timely rescue, improvement in habitat, water management, mitigation of man-animal conflict and more awareness among the locals have contributed to the rise in lion count," says Sandeep Kumar, deputy conservator of forests, Gir National Park and Sanctuary.
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