Saturday, September 30, 2017

The prides of Gujarat

The prides of Gujarat

The lions that live outside the Gir forest are subsidised by people
The Asian lion may be 'mrigaraja', the 'king of deer', but it was the prey of royalty, who displayed their valour as lion-slayers. By the late 19th century, hunters had wiped out all signs of the tawny cat from the country, across northwestern India, east to Bihar, and as far south as the Narmada.

The hills of Kathiawar, a malarial outpost, saved its sorry roar. Even here it would have fallen had Lord Curzon not granted a reprieve in 1900. He turned down an invitation from the Nawab of Junagadh to take down a lion or few, out of concern that the species was on its last legs. Only then did the native ruler become aware of the species' distressing circumstances.

Pastoralists and agriculturalists poisoned their share of lions for taking their livestock. But one community wasn't too perturbed about the cats' taste for their livestock — the Maldharis. One of their deities, Kankeshwari, sported an ox in one hand and a lion in the other. Another was Bhavani, who rode a lion.

Starting an unabated climb

In 1920, Sir Patrick Cadell, the Diwan of Junagadh, counted 50 lions, and J.M. Ratnagar of the Bombay Forest Service said there were 100 left. The Indian government protected the 1,400 Gir forest, but the numbers wobbled up and down before beginning an upward climb that has not abated.

The white-clad Maldhari men herded their animals in the area and grew accustomed to being surrounded by prides of lions. Armed with stout staffs, they were said to knock any lion on the head if it came too close. Their vegetarian diet meant the lions could eat their kills in peace. In return, the cats didn't mess with the people, having eyes only for their cattle.

"This is not to be misinterpreted as a lack of 'wildness' in these lions," says Ravi Chellam, who studied lions in the 1990s.

"Make no mistake, these lions are more than capable of hunting sambhar, wild pigs, chital and a whole host of both wild and domestic prey species. My interpretation of this rather peaceable relationship between the lions and human beings is that over the years the lions have got used to human presence and it also helps that most people do not disturb the lions."

Despite the Maldharis laidback attitude towards the carnivores, biologists in the 1970s saw the tribals as the main threat to lions. Their cattle out-competed wild herbivores and degraded the forest, they said. About 580 households were relocated to make Gir National Park the sole preserve of lions.

While the cats flourished, the people who were made to leave became poorer, selling lands they didn't know how to till to work as wage labourers. In the adjoining wildlife sanctuary, a few hundred Maldharis continue to live with their animals.

In the mid 1980s, Gir brimmed with lions and young adults started colonising forests within a 20-kilometre radius. According to the 2015 census, 523 Asian lions live in four districts of Gujarat. As many as 40% of them roam outside forests, in crop and sugarcane fields and mango orchards, where lion numbers exploded by 130% in five years. To get a sense of just how rural these wild beasts have become, have a look at the numerous video clips on YouTube. They wander through a village, race across fields, try to cross a highway.

Despite the abundance of wild game in Gir, the lion population rose by less than 5%. The cats now occupy about 13,000, sheltering in Prosopis thickets along the southern coast and in little forested patches. Several of these patches are too tiny to entirely support even one lion.

In 2011, the Forest Department estimated the cats killed about 90 livestock a month. Meena Venkataraman, a researcher who studies lions, estimates cattle made up the entire diet of 45 lions since one lion has to kill a buffalo or two cows a month. Earlier this year, H.S. Singh, a retired forester, estimated lions took 3,400 heads of livestock. Of course, no lion eats only cattle.

Turning a blind eye

As much as 75% of these cats living outside Gir are subsidised by people. If they said they had had enough of the lions and refused to tolerate any further predation of their stock, what would become of the 200 lions living outside Gir? What makes these people turn a blind eye to the lions?

Many of the farming communities in these new lion territories don't have a cultural affinity for or history with lions as the Maldharis do. They could have demanded the forest department make their villages safer by removing all these predators. Instead, they learnt the value of having these predators around. Their bĂȘte noire isn't the lion as much as the nilgai or wild boar that eat their crops. If lions didn't keep their numbers in control, farming losses would be much more.

But to the cats, domestic meat tasted as good as wild game. Domestic animals are corralled in secure enclosures for the night, so the predators cannot get to them. The lions strike when the livestock return home in the evenings after grazing all day.

Occasionally, something flips a switch. In April-May 2016, lions killed three people in villages neighbouring Gir.

The forest department captured 17 and identified three it thinks are guilty of the crime. Since then calmness has prevailed.

The author is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

No comments:

Previous Posts