Pride and fall: After deaths of 23 lions in Gujarat's Gir reserve, search for solutions.
New Delhi: The deaths of at least 23 lions in Gujarat's Gir forest reserve in less than three weeks have shocked conservationists and animal lovers. Gir is the only place on Earth where the Asiatic lions still roam free, and India's entire population of around 500 wild Asiatic lions lives here.
According to the forest department, the deaths were due to infections and infighting within the pride.
In 2016 and 2017, more than 180 lions died in the forest, a worrying spike in the death toll from the two years prior to that.
The questions are urgent: What are the specific challenges facing Gir and the other protected areas for lions in Gujarat, and what can we do to protect these magnificent animals?
A success story
The Asiatic lion was on the verge of extinction in the first decades of the 20th century. But thanks to conservation efforts, their population increased four-fold between 1965 and 2015, and now hovers around 500. Yet, the Asiatic lion continues to be endangered. The lions are found in the protected areas of Gir National Park, Gir Sanctuary, Mitiyala Sanctuary, Pania Sanctuary and Girnar Sanctuary, spread across a total area exceeding 1,600 square km.
While the conservation efforts at Gir have been rightly lauded in India and abroad, the increased numbers of lions simply don't have enough space to thrive in their designated areas, experts say. That's why lions are increasingly spotted outside the perimeters of the protected areas. Poaching has not been a major issue here, but with the lions encountering humans more often, it has all the makings of a classic man-animal conflict. Attacks on livestock are on the rise, and fatal attacks by lions on villagers have also been reported.
All eggs in one basket
Wildlife experts have feared for decades that any outbreak of a disease or a deadly fire could be devastating for Gujarat's lions and consequently for Asiatic lions as a whole. That's why in the early 1990s, it was proposed to translocate lions from Gir to Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. But the plan got stuck – and remains stuck to this day -- as the Gujarat government is reportedly not enthusiastic about the idea. The matter has even reached the Supreme Court, but no action has been taken so far.
The recent deaths of lions in Gujarat have once again rung alarm bells. One can only hope solutions are found quickly. Ensuring that the Asiatic lion continues to roar is India's special responsibility. The world is watching.