Population spurt, space crunch drive lions of Gir into death traps
A tiny temple in Bherayi, a village in Gujarat's Amreli district, reflects the residents' concern over the wellbeing of their pride — the Asiatic lion in the Gir National Park.
The shrine, which doubles up as a memorial, was built recently to make locals and authorities aware of the need for safety of the lions following the death of two lionesses in what is now called Greater Gir.
"Deeply disturbed by the deaths, we built the memorial," said Bhikha Jethva of the Lion Nature Foundation, a non-government conservation group, this week.
Such efforts with the government's help gave Gir — the only place on earth where Asiatic lions are found in the wild — a fresh lease of life.
The lion population rose from an alarmingly low 13 in 1913 to a healthy 523 in 2015. And 40% of these lions now live in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Gir Somnath and Porbandar districts in the Saurashtra region, moving through 19 corridors covering 22,000 square km.
Migration allowed a larger prey base for the lions, but this has also become their bane.
Gujarat forest minister Ganpat Vasava said in the state assembly on March 5 that Gir lost 184 lions in the past two years at an annual average of 92, compared to the yearly average of 62 deaths between 2010 and 2015. Around one-third of these deaths were "unnatural" — being run over by trains along tracks running through the forest, drowning in wells left uncovered, and getting electrocuted by electric fences, the minister said.
Spread over 1,882 square km, Gir has the capacity to accommodate around 300 lions.
The population spurt has forced the lions to migrate to newer areas through the corridors which, according to a forest official who did not want to be identified, provide a natural balancing act.
"But trouble occurs when there are obstructions in the free movement of lions through these corridors," said Ram Ratan Nala, deputy chief conservator of forest, in charge of two Gir regions.
These obstacles are five state highways and railway lines cutting through the lions' land. These apart, there are ports, cement factories and limestone mines along the coastal corridor abutting the sanctuary. Around 23 shrines along highways through the jungle bring the lions in direct conflict with the people.
A 30km fence along the Rajula -Pipava railway tracks, built in 2016, has claimed 14 lions in the past two years.
"The fencing has put an additional obstruction to wild cats in moving along the coastal corridor," said Jethva of the Lion Nature Foundation.
Uncovered wells are another cause of worry. The forest department says 25,000 wells in and around the sanctuary have been covered with parapets. "But lions are venturing into newer areas and open wells will continue to remain death traps," Nala said.
Another killer are the electric fences farmers have installed to protect crops from animals such blue bulls. Lions get electrocuted chasing their prey.
The debate over Gir's growing lion population and shrinking habitat has touched the park's tour guides and drivers of open Gypsies carrying tourists and wildlife enthusiasts.
"Lions have been venturing into villages for a long time. But now we are able to see them more often," said 22-year-old driver Appu Bloch, who recently spotted a pair of lions at a railway station.
Many households have rigged their homes, crop fields and cattle pens with high barbed wire and electric fences. According to Jumma Katiya, a resident of Sasan village, the fencing and safety measures are a "small sacrifice" they have made for the lions, knowing little that these have caused more harm than good.
The Gujarat State Save Environment Committee (GSSEC), a Saurashtra-based conservation group, wants the lions returned to the sanctuary, but the forest department calls it an "impossible" demand.
Wildlife experts say translocation of Gir lions to Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh is a possible solution. But critics of this move argue that the best wildlife practices of Gir cannot be replicated elsewhere. The Supreme Court in 2013 approved the relocation to Kuno.
Kishor Kotecha of Wildlife Conservation Trust, Rajkot, filed a petition in the top court challenging the relocation plan. The top court will hear the plea this April. "Natural deaths have increased due to rise in population. We must try to restrict the number of unnatural deaths," he said.
People like safari driver Bloch don't want the relocation to happen. They say they don't mind lions lurking near their homes as they are part of the family.
"No one gives away a family member," he said, responding to the court order to shift some of Gir's lions to Kuno Palpur to ease pressure on the Gujarat park.