Saving the king of beasts: The endangered Asiatic Lions
The esoteric jungles of India are home to an array of majestic beasts walking in glory! Gir in India's Gujarat is one such abode to the Asiatic lions and the only home of the Asiatic lion outside Africa.
Three protected areas (Gir Sanctuary, Gir National Park and Pania Sanctuary) represent the core habitat of the Asian Lion with an area of 1452 km square of forest.
In the year 2000, the Asiatic Lion was declared the most endangered large cat species in the world by International Union for Conservation of Nature. But, India however managed to bring back the Asiatic lion from the brink of extinction through a single protected reserve.
In 2005, when the lion population slowly started rising and crossed 250, it was removed from the list. The census exercise is conducted every five years and Gujarat government's last lion census in 2010 pins down their numbers at 411. After the four-day census of Asiatic lions in the Gir sanctuary, the results were finally declared on May 10 and the figures certainly boast of a successful conservation story. There has been a robust growth in our lion population, from 411 in 2010 to 523 now, which means a growth of 27% and that gives the state government a reason to rejoice.
But still the question is - Are these lions really safe? Once, they were a regal subspecies rambling in the Indian jungles in large numbers, and now they are a few hundreds of them wedged into a single sanctuary in Gir Forest. According to forest officials, the carrying capacity of the protected areas is only 260 lions.
The slow and promising increase in their numbers is satisfactory, but 50 lions still die annually due to a variety of threats.
Man's incessant greed resulting in hunting, shooting and poaching of Asian lions put their lives in great jeopardy. However due to strict monitoring and conservation efforts, in the past one year, not a single incident of lion poaching has been reported.
A crucial thing to be noted from the the 2015 census is that it shows a rise of only 4.4 per cent or 14 lions in the sanctuary and protected forest areas while there has been a mind-boggling increase of 130 per cent or 96 lions in areas of human habitation with increasing commercial activities bringing to the fore the perils of man-animal conflict.
Thus, Asian lions are in constant danger from electrified fences that farmers put up to keep grazing animals out of their fields. One tragic cause of death is drowning when lions fall into deep, open-pit wells that are common in the region.
The Asiatic lion is also under threat from the following factors:
· Habitat loss
· Prey loss
· Human-lion conflict
According to conservationists, due to the concentrated and isolated nature of the entire population, a natural environmental disaster such as the outbreak of a single epidemic disease, a severe drought or major bush fire could see the extinction of the species.
Alternate habitat needed?
Experts suggest that the big cats need to be relocated to another habitat to ensure their safety.
Conservationists are of the view that these lions need a second home fast because a single sanctuary is detrimental to their safety.
Early in the1990s, experts agreed on a rugged and hilly sanctuary called Kuno, where lions historically roamed with tigers in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. But several roadblocks in the form of political squabble have derailed the much required lion translocation program.
Despite Supreme Court's ruling in 2013 that the lions belong to all of India and not just to Gujarat, the Gujarat government has repeatedly tried to appeal the decision and refused to transfer the lions to Madhya Pradesh. After years of clinging to its fauna, Gujarat government will have to start cooperating and put everything else aside to save what they consider to be the "pride of the state".
Therefore the challenge is to counter the whims and resistance of Gujarat government and chalk out a plan to effectively carry out the translocation program. It is the time for animal conservationists and governing authorities to forge a strong collaboration together to take concrete action before it's too late to save one of the most magnificent beasts to roam the planet.