The number of Gir lions has gone up by 29 per cent but with a shrinking habitat, man-animal conflicts remain a challenge
If there has been one silver lining through the dark clouds of the pandemic, it has been of the resurgence and healing of nature. Now there is more good news on that front. The numbers of the majestic Asiatic Lion, which was once threatened by extinction, are up by almost 29 per cent in Gujarat’s Gir forest. Geographically, too, the distribution area is up by 36 per cent. Their numbers have now risen to an estimated 674 in protected areas and agro-pastoral landscapes of Saurashtra, over an expanse of about 30,000 sq km. Although lions have been increasing steadily from 523 in 2015, they have also fallen victim to human-animal conflict, partly due to the fragmentation of their habitat and encroachment. This had resulted in them spilling out of their ranges and almost co-habiting with villagers, letting go of their feline aggression for a tamer behaviour. More lions had been straying into human settlements in the absence of a transit corridor to an alternative home. Sometimes, they were run over by trains. Then some of them fell prey to Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), protozoa infections and territorial fights because of the shrinking forest. But since then conservation efforts have been stepped up through community participation, technological mapping, habitat management, encouraging prey base, minimising human-lion conflict and better healthcare, including import of CDV vaccines. So now there are 161 males, 260 females, 45 sub-adult males, 49 sub-adult females, 22 unidentified and 137 cubs. However, even as there is reason to celebrate every big cat birth and survival, this also makes us confront the age-old questions of the sustainability of such large carnivore populations. Since the protected area and agro-pastoral landscapes are at maximum capacity already, it is only a matter of time before the lions wander farther off in search of roaming territory. How will the community deal with a growing population of carnivores given the fact that the 2015 census clearly shows that the lion population grew by 126 per cent outside the Gir Protected Area? Till now, Gujarat has been handling this efficiently by letting the lions prey on livestock and compensating the farmers promptly. But is this a permanent solution? Because, according to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the number of villages where lions kill livestock is increasing by about 100 each year. So if the authorities don’t revise the compensation rates in keeping with the current market price of cattle, and if they fail to give the money promptly, then the farmers will lose patience and we will again be left with a major man-animal conflict on our hands. Also, wildlife experts say that increased interaction between humans and the big cats is very detrimental for the latter as they learn to live in human settlements and turn into scavengers rather than hunters.
So the Government needs to create more lion-safe areas, if not protected ones. The WII’s Lion Ecology Project has charted forest patches where lionesses can rear cubs and hunt for them. These should be legally protected against conversion into agricultural land or development zones. There is need to build overpasses or underpasses where railway tracks cut through habitats, allowing the animals the right of way safely. And some relocation sites should be planned in contiguity with neighbouring State reserves if we want to swell our pride.
(Courtesy: EDITOR,The Pioneer)