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Finding more space for the Asiatic lion

Aarti Dhar

The need to create an alternative habitat for the Asiatic lions — now confined to the Gir sanctuary in Gujarat — is growing.

— PHOTO: PAUL NORONHA

The pride of Gir.

THE DEATH of an Asiatic lion in the recent floods in Gujarat has once again drawn attention to the need for creating an alternative habitat for the species, as had been proposed a decade ago.

For, the floods could as easily have swept away large numbers of the lions or an epidemic could break out affecting the entire lion population. In the early 1990s, the "canine distemper" epidemic took the lives of a third of the lions in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. A similar epidemic or any other natural catastrophe in the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary could prove disastrous for the 300-plus Asiatic Lions there.

Credit to Junagadh Nawab

In the wild, the Asiatic lion or Panthera leo persica, whose habitat once ranged from Greece to Central India, is now confined to 1,142 sq km of the Gir protected area in Gujarat. The credit for saving the lions from extinction goes to the Nawab of Junagadh. In 1910, after the number of lions fell drastically following a famine, the Nawab banned hunting.

There were only about a couple of dozen lions left then but by the time the first census was carried out in 1936 the number had gone up to 287.

The Nawab's efforts in preserving the "pride of Gujarat" were appreciated by the Centre after Independence and the ban on hunting lions continued. The Asiatic lions' last remaining habitat was declared a protected area and called the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary.

The area also supports leopards, antelopes, deer, jackals, hyenas, and crocodiles. In 1968, the lion population fell to 177 with the shrinking of the grasslands; following this the Government launched the lion conservation programme.

The plan to translocate some Gir lions to an alternative habitat was mooted in 1995 by a team of experts from the Wildlife Institute of India. The team suggested three places but zeroed in on the Kuno reserve forest in Madhya Pradesh where there was enough space and livestock.

Also, the increase in the number of lions was beyond the capacity of the Gir sanctuary to accommodate, according to experts. There have been instances of the lions venturing out from the protected area, right up to the coast. In January this year, seven lions were spotted on a beach near Amreli, 80 km from the protected area towards Diu. Also, Gir has a substantial population of the Maldhari community that grazes livestock within the protected area. Several forest dwellers had settled there even before the forest was declared a protected area.

Growing number of visitors

Another area of concern is the heavy influx of visitors to the Gir Protected Area. About 2.5 lakh people a year come to visit three big temples and 23 smaller shrines within the protected area. Five State highways and a rail track also pass through the forest.

The proposal was accepted by the Environment and Forests Ministry and there was some movement towards its implementation but there has been consistent opposition from the people and the Government of the State who are reluctant to part with the "pride of Gujarat."

Their argument is if the lions have to be translocated, they could be moved to some place within Gujarat — the Barda wildlife sanctuary near Porbandar.

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