PRIDE AT STAKE
That Gir's Asiatic Lion population has been on a steady rise doesn't necessarily mean that the big cat is thriving in its habitat. Experts and biologists tell SHALINI SAKSENA that this predator is facing many challenges — unnatural deaths, moving out of Gir and translocation
There have been reports that in the last two years, 184 lions have died — 104 lions including 33 cubs died in 2016 and 80 including 38 cubs died in 2017 — out of which 32 deaths were due to unnatural causes. Out of the 184 deaths, 81 deaths have been within the protected area and a majority has been due to natural causes. There are many reasons for these deaths.
Rail and road accidents, lions falling into open wells and deaths due to electrocution — fencing around farmland are some reasons.
On March 5, 2018, Forest Minister Ganpat Vasava told the Gujarat Assembly that the unnatural deaths occur due to road accidents, open wells with no concrete parapets, railway tracks passing through the protected areas and forests, and electric fences securing agricultural land.
"Death of a lion is sad. What we have to see is whether the death is intentional and the reasons. If it is due to poaching, even a death of single lion is worrisome. Around 45-50 per cent of the present lion population is living outside of the protected area. According to the last Census of August 2017, the figure stood at 650. This means that more than 300 big cats are unprotected," says Bhushan Pandya, member of the State Board for Wildlife and a Nature photographer with over three decades of experience.
"If we look at the life cycle of the animal, the prime age is between three to four years to 10 years. The active years are six to seven years. Nature has designed the big cat in such a way that about 70 per cent of the cubs die before they reach prime age. In Africa, the mortality rate is higher. The need of the hour is to set up an effective infrastructure outside of the protected area. This, of course, is a tall order since the lion is spread over an area of 20,000 square km and 1500 villages," Pandya opines.
The speed with which the population is increasing and spreading, there is urgent need to cope with the situation. If one sees the history of these carnivores — lions, tigers and leopards — there is no other country where all these animals have been living in one area. The Gir area has 500 leopards. There is need to come up with new strategies and management practices.
"The reason why the lion has moved away from the protected area is because its prey has moved away. The prey has moved in search of greener pastures and with it, the predator has moved too. As with the predator, the population of the prey has also increased and dispersing outside of the protected area. However, the move has less to do with the dryness of the region. The lion, in fact, prefers dry deciduous forest unlike the tiger," Pandya explains.
One of the main reasons for the increase in the lion population is that the cat is a prolific breeder. The lioness gives birth after a gestation period of 100-110 days. "Most times, she gives birth to two-three, sometimes even four cubs, at a time. Since they live in a Pride, the chances of their survival go up. If one were to see the Census of the last three years, there were so many cubs. But many died — natural causes including territory takeover by other males results in the cubs being killed," Pandya says.
It is not just territory takeovers that kill cubs. Open wells are a nuisance as well for not just the cubs but adults too. Replying to a question by Congress legislator Gyasuddin Sheikh, Forest Minister Ganpat Vasava admitted recently that wells without parapet walls often became death traps for the lions, which fell into them and drown.
"There are 27 open wells in Amreli district near the sanctuary," Vasava reportedly said, adding that parapet walls would be built around these wells "as soon as possible".
Does this mean that the success India has had in saving the Asiatic Lion has created challenges in the region with human encroachment and the cat moving out of the protected area?
Parimal Nathwani, author of Gir Lion: Pride of Gujarat and group president (Corporate Affairs) Reliance Industries Limited has a different viewpoint and tells you that as such there is no problem — either for the lion or the humans. "Gir lions have been human friendly — they never attack human beings unless disturbed or irritated beyond a point, particularly during mating. People in Gir and the surrounding area have enjoyed co-existence with the lion for generations. The forest areas in Gir and its surrounds have enough prey-base for the lions. Since there's no gun culture in Gujarat, the jungle king is safe from hunting and poaching," Nathwani says, adding that the rise in numbers is a success story for the cat.
"Conservation measures taken during pre-Independence and post-Independence eras culminated in success and survival of the jungle king. From a handful of Asiatic Lions, the number has increased to 523 as per the 2015 Census and the number is estimated around 600 at present," Nathwani says.
His take on the lion moving out of the protected area is a bit different. "The reason for the lions moving out is natural. It moves to form new territory for its Pride. It also moves for mating. The lion needs its own extended territory, so the new pride needs to look for new areas for settling down in area of command. Lions which were confined to only in Gir's forest area near Junagadh have spread to Greater Gir forest areas like Gir Somnath, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts. Lions are also found in the foothill forests of Mount Girnar, Dhari, Satadhar, Tulsi Shyam and Pipavav," he tells you.
He believes that the move is good since the lions move in the areas where the food-pattern, colour of the soil, vegetation and overall ambience is similar to Gir. The forests of Saurashtra in Gujarat have been most suitable geographically and climatically to lions," says Nathwani whose book contains a variety of unique information about Gir lions and some very rare pictures.
It peeps into the history of the lion starting from 65 million years ago and provides details about the currently controversial issue of lion translocation. The book also reveals some of the hitherto unknown characteristics and myriad moods of the majestic animal and their co-existence with the human society in Gir.
But, existence with humans has come at a price. Farmers in villages bordering Gir have dug around 9,000 wells. But these are left open to save money, turning into death traps for lions and other animals in the regions. Lions have also been killed by electric fences that have been built by farmers to keep deer away from their crops. Then there is the looming threat of poaching as well.
Wildlife biologist and lion expert Dr Meena Venkatraman says that while poaching is not an immediate threat at Gir, it is always a potential threat. "Poaching doesn't occur because of the vigilant management, the political will and the support of the local people themselves who take a lot of pride in the lion and ensure its safety. There was one incident of lion death due to poaching back in 2007 but timely steps were taken to curb it. One has to understand that poaching is always a risk for any wildlife," Venkatraman says.
Open-wells meant for irrigation in farmlands, a common sight in any agrarian landscape of the country, are another threat for wild animals moving in these areas at night. Lions and leopards often fall into the wells and are trapped within. These incidents have increased in recent years and the Forest Department takes on the challenging job of rescuing these animals.
"This is a relatively new problem for not just the lion but other wildlife as well, especially at night. One is talking about a very large landscape and can't be a single responsibility of the Forest Department. There is a need for greater participation — locals and NGOs — to work with the department to address the situation. Since this is the only region sustaining this species, there is need to tread carefully," Venkatraman says.
Increased traffic — cars and buses passing through Gir Forest has taken its toll, too. With at least one lion being killed by a vehicle in 2018 and four lions including cubs being run over by trains passing outside of the protected area in 2014 — is a cause of concern.
At night, the rail tracks are a much open area for the animal. They don't understand the danger the track possess. There were talks of putting a speed limit for trains when they pass through the forest and warning system.
"As a biologist, the fencing cuts the landscape but the farmer needs to protect his yield and an electrified fence is an option. Management policies have to carefully plan and ideally be a long-term community engagement," Venkatraman tells you.
One also has to understand that in case of unnatural deaths, due to accidents, of the lion, it is more unintentional.
"There is a lot of acceptance of the lion in the region and it is a great model of people-wildlife co-existence," Venkatraman opines.
"There is need to set up a new division. A letter has already been sent to the Gujarat Government. A number of changes have been recommended including regular patrolling. For now, a lion's live is in God's hands. The poachers are waiting for an opportunity and one can't let that happen," Pandya tells you.
There are several challenges that come in the way of taking up the protection of the lion outside of Gir area. Money, apparently, is not the issue. It is the speed with which the work is being done that is a cause of a worry.
"The areas where lion density is high, one can set up rescue teams with trained wildlife staff which is capable of handling the big cat. The main difference in a conflict situation between the protected area and an unprotected is the time taken for the rescue team to reach the area. In a protected area, time taken is little. The problem is when the team doesn't reach the spot on time and the villagers surround the animal leading to an explosive situation — it stresses the animal and its actions become unpredictable leading to a dangerous situation for the people," Pandya says.
Wildlife activist and Prayatna secretary Ajay Dubey from Bhopal tells you that while the rise in the number of lions is a success story, there are challenges involved. "First, there is a lot of in-breeding that is taking place due to increase in the number of lions but their habitat has not widened. The increased number of lions has also led to territorial wars in the lions. Many die fighting trying to gain or defend their area. So, some are moving out of the protected area. This has brought the big cat into conflict with humans. The attacks on domesticated cattle give a message loud and clear," Dubey says.
Pandya tells you that setting up rescue teams and a second division will mitigate lion deaths and man-lion conflict. "When a lion attacks the cattle villagers sleep out in the open to protect them. This may lead to lion attacks on people. In such a situation there is need for the villagers to protect themselves. If one is crossing a road that is passing through lion territory, caution is the key to avoid hitting the cat. These are just common precautionary steps that one needs to follow when one is living in a big cat territory," Pandya advises.
'Don't put all eggs in one basket'
A 2013 Supreme Court order directed the Environment Ministry to translocate some Asiatic Lions from the Gir Forest, Gujarat, to the Kuno Palpur wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. But the order has not been implemented so far.
Gir is the last and only bastion The Asiatic Lion (Panthera Leo) is the last bastion of this species in the continent. In May 2015, the Gujarat Government released its latest lion census figures, which said the lion population had grown by around 27 per cent — from 411 in 2010 to 523 in 2015, in 20,000 sq km area spreading over human-dominated habitats, including towns and cities crisscrossed by highways and railway tracks. Second, in the last year-and-a-half, the area has seen over a 100 cubs. The lioness gives birth to one to four cubs and since they live in a Pride, the chances of the cub growing to adulthood is higher for the lion as compared to any other big cat in the wild. Third, this spurt in the lion population in the last decade has led to man-lion conflict. Four, there is fear among the big cat conservationists and biologists that should there be an outbreak of a disease, it could well mean that end of this species as this is the only population in the wild.
"The SC judgment clearly states that translocation is to mitigate the risk and about proactively planning the move. It is like how and why we buy life and medical insurance. To cover the risk in case one falls ill or dies. If something untoward happens to this population, do we have a safety net? Is there a fall-back option? Lions, to begin with, were all over North and Central India — from Punjab to Bihar down to Narmada — all these regions had lions roaming freely. The reason why this cat is now restricted to one State today is due to man — agriculture, urbanisation and guns killing them," Dr Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist who has been studying the ecology and behaviour of the Gir lions with the specific objective of implementing the translocation says.
Experts opine that one can't approach the animals with a Noah's Arc approach — one can't take a male and female and expect them to create a wild population. When conservationists talk about conservation, it is about persistence of the animal populations and not about the fate of an individual animal.
"Death is the only guarantee in life. At some point in time, depending on the lifespan of the animal, they will die. Here you have a single population — keeping all your eggs in one basket — and if something happens to it, how will we be able to conserve the sub-species? If one proactively creates a second, third and even a fourth population, the chances of extinct are lesser. Even if there is a threat of disease or a climactic calamity, since these populations will be separated from each other by several hundred or even thousand-odd km, the chances that the sub-species will survive are more," Chellam explains.
Interestingly, talk of translocation of Asiatic lion began much before what happened in Serengeti (In 1994, the lion population was decimated by a canine distemper disease outbreak) in Africa. An attempt in India to translocate was done in the late 50s and early 1960s based on the knowledge available back then. It was succeeded over the short-term but ultimately failed. To begin with three lions — one male and two female wild-caught Asiatic lions — were translocated to Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary, covering 96 square km in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where climate, terrain and vegetation was similar to the conditions in the Gir Forest.
"This figure increased to 11 but unfortunately they disappeared, presumably shot. But it was more due to the limitations of the knowledge base and the system in place back then. But doing the same in 80s or even 1990s, there is so much more expertise and one is more involved, the chance of success is higher. Countries like South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Zimbabwe have proved that capture of large mammals can be done easily and with little discomfort to the animal. They have also proved that translocation and revival of wildlife population can be done. When I began my research in the 80s, this was the main focus - what do we need to understand about the lions for the translocation to succeed. As luck would have it by the time I submitted my report, the Serengeti problem also happened," Chellam says.
When it comes down to actual translocation, there are several reasons for resistance. "We think that humans are rational beings and that they are intelligent and think long-term. We are supposed to be broad-minded and generous. But anything and everything can be reduced to parochial and selfish outlook. Therefore, you had resistance of translocation of the one-horned rhino from Assam to Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh. In the similar manner, the Gujarat Government says it is Gujarati lion. But in a globilised world, what is more important? Is it the long-term survival of the species or our selfish goals? Chellam asks.
The challenge that the lion is facing today — like any large and dangerous cat — is its interaction with people which is an explosive combination. There are attacks, injuries, killing of livestock and people. Also, 50 per cent of the present lion population is outside of the protected area. Here, one can't control human activity — in their fields and homes and roads - nor can one control the movement of the cat. There have been reports that in the last two years, 184 lions have died out of which 32 have died due to unnatural causes.
"Lions are born and lions will die. It is not about individual deaths; numbers are not so important but the fact that some cats have died due to human activities is worrisome." Chellam tells you.
Of course, there is no guarantee that a disease will not break-out in Kuno. "There is need to look at the situation objectively; not from Gujarat perspective or India perspective but from purely Asiatic lion's perspective and what is good for it. Even if we lose a few cats, God forbid, during translocation, it is okay. Anyway, 32 lions have died due to unnatural causes. Death of any wild animal however tragic it might be doesn't affect the long-term survival of the population. Conservation is the name of the game and is always long-term. It means protecting the habitat and ensuring connectivity," Chellam tells you.