The Telegraph - By Mahesh Rangarajan
The recent poaching of six lions for claws in the Gir forest has led to calls for better policing and protection. The immediate response of both the Union and the
So far, so good. But what next? To learn better how to protect and safeguard the lion, it is necessary to ask why it is a dim memory across so much of its historic range.
Just two centuries ago, the species had a range across much of north and central
By the turn of the earlier century, the prides that had roamed the grasslands and the scrub jungles of the subcontinent for millennia had vanished. Some were shot by trophy-hunters equipped with better, long-range rifles. Others were poisoned by their owners, whose antagonism was further fuelled by the rich bounties offered for the great beasts by the new British rulers. The princes and maharajahs did their share of polishing off what was left. Even before much of its dry grassland home in the plains was converted to cultivation, the big cat had vanished.
The Gir hills of the
But about 1900, such protection is exactly what the lions got. A few were still shot, but only large males with big manes. The lionesses and cubs, and most of their male kin, were under formal princely protection. When Ranji, the famous prince of Nawanagar, shot a lioness in an adjacent range outside the
The engaging story is well told in a recent work by Divyabhanusinh. The Story of Asia’s Lions, as he calls it, is not merely a tale from ages past. On not one but two occasions, the species had a brush with the spirits. The first was at the time of independence, when the nawab fled to
Yet, Gir was more than a forest of the lions, the only ones left in the wild in all of
It was under president’s rule in 1974 that a Gir lion project got under way. It is largely due to the protection of the prey, predator and the habitat that the lion and the forest staged a remarkable recovery. Research by scholars like Ravi Chellam was to show later, and decisively, how the lions turned from preying on buffaloes to deer as the latter grew in number.
While accepting encomiums for the remarkable success story, the government and the people of
Therein lies the nub of today’s problem. The name for the lion in
The problem is that the very regional pride that has helped save the animals has now become a hindrance to their future. Nowhere is this as clear as in the near total opposition to relocating a small number of lions to a second home in central
One of Narendra Modi’s predecessors, Shankersinh Vagehla, once told a journalist that he would not even part with a single lion cub, let alone a lion. Since then, attitudes have hardened. The
Regionalism, once a valued ally, can also be immune to reason. The lions of Gir are vulnerable to epidemics like tick fever that resulted in the death of over a thousand lions in
Neither a chief ministerial visit, as Narendra Modi’s within days of the recent poaching incidents, nor the newly established Wild- life Crime Cell will be of much help were a disease to strike the lions.
If anything, Gujarat could take a leaf out of the pages of another state known for its regional nationalism:
The lions of Gir do not just face threats from poachers. Their habitat needs protection. The Vanishing Herds Foundation, funded by expatriate Gujaratis has done commendable work in covering wells that often become death traps. The Gir Wildlife Club has mobilized youngsters along the rim of the forest to become nature-lovers. Yet, the easing of restrictions on vehicle entry to pilgrimage sites in the forest, like the famous Kankai Mata temple, disturb the habitat.
Above all, the saga of the Gir lions raises a question that lies at the very heart of conservation. Protection of rare fauna or landscapes, the lions of Gir or the rhinos of
Yet, that very sense of regional pride can be the cause of a fall. In the case of the last of
The last century saw not one but two remarkable conservation success stories with the lions. It is time to launch a new venture, one that gives them not just a second habitat but also the guarantee of survival.
The author is an independent researcher whose most recent work is an edited volume, Environmental Issues in