The death of almost two dozens Asiatic lions in Gir brings to the fore the challenge of managing the big cats. Nevertheless, the forest department in the state swung into action and did a good job of it.
The death of 23 Asiatic lions (three lions, 11 lionesses and nine cubs above six months) in just two weeks, starting end of September and beginning of October, set alarm bells ringing for the Gujarat Forest Department. Initially, confusion prevailed but progressive deaths compelled the authorities to go for a prompt scientific investigation. Samples of the dead lions were sent to the National Institute of Virology, Pune, College of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, Junagadh, and FSL Junagadh to find out the possible reason that killed the lions. Samples of five lions confirmed the attack of a virus — Canine Distemper Virus (CDV). The Veterinary College, Junagadh, confirmed the presence of Babesia protozoa in about a dozen samples. Suspecting an attack of the CDV, all surviving lions from the Sarasiya Round in Dalkhaniya Range were captured and kept in isolation at the Jasadhar lion care centre to avoid any contact with other lions.
Another 33 lions from the adjoining area of Dalkhaniya Range were also captured and sent to Jamwala lion care centre. Of the infected lions kept in Jasadhar, all died but three survived as their immune system was better equipped to tackle the disease. Additionally, deaths of a few lions in August this year in the same region due to a similar disease cannot be ruled out.
The Gir protected area (1,452 sq km) and its surrounding forests cover an expanse of 1,882 sq km, which is distributed in 15 ranges, 60 forest rounds and 152 forest beats. The spread of the CDV disease was confined to 26 lions in Sarasia Round in Dalkhania Range. Other 33 lions in the adjoining Dalkhania range were suspected of such an attack, but a laboratory test proved that they were free from the fatal disease. Statistics reveal that only about two per cent of the Gir protected area and about four per cent of the Gir lions were infected by the fatal CDV and Babesia protozoa, although the presence of the virus in other lions having immunity against the virus is not being ruled out.
When the fatal infection by CDV and Babesia protozoa attacked the African lion in Serengeti-Masai Mara landscape, it killed about 1,000 lions, almost 40 percent of the total population of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in 1994. The first distressed African lion affected by the disease was detected in the first week of February in 1994. Before authorities could understand the problems, almost one year after the detection of the first case, about 1,000 lions died by the end of 1994.
Subsequently, after seven years, in the much smaller nearby Ngorongoro Crater population, around 100 lions suffered a similar higher percentage of losses in 2001. Unlike the two cases in the known history of the African lions, the administration of the Gujarat Government was fast to act against the problems. The wildlife wing of the Gujarat Forest Department promptly removed the entire population of one or two pride from the Sarasia Round.
Not only the Sarasia lions but also 33 lions from the adjoining Dalkhania round were captured and removed from the wild. Prompt action avoided the spread of the disease to other areas. Blood samples and saliva of the infected and also the non-infected lions kept in isolation at Jamwala were examined to investigate the presence of the disease. After scientific inputs from national and international experts, 300 vaccinations were procured from the US to meet the emergency situation. All lions in the enclosure were vaccinated. Subsequently, they were sent to semi-captivity in Devalia Gir Interpretation Centre, a large safari park which covers an area of about 412 ha.
Like several unprecedented measures in 2007, after eight lions were poached by a gang of raiders from Katani, Madhya Pradesh, the Gujarat Government was prompt to initiate several actions to avoid such a threat to the Gir lion. In collaboration with the Animal Husbandry Department, the vaccination drive was launched in both divisions of the Gir forests.
The problem of the big cat’s management is gigantic in the Gir lion conservation landscape. About half of the lions, 300 individuals, roam around in an area of about 12,500 sq km in 1,400 villages in the four districts. The big cat population in this landscape is over 1,200 creatures (over 600 lions and over 625 leopards), which is more than three times the combined population of tiger and leopard in the best tiger landscape in any part of the country.
The electronic as well as the print media have been covering stories on the Gir lions since the last one month. Many stories were far from the truth and were mixed with politics. Many doubted the intention and efficiency of the administration. Remember, nothing is perfect and absolute. How can an administration be perfect? More action is expected to ensure the safety of the lion.
During the last five decades, the lion population in India has increased three-fold, from 180 in the early 1970s to over 600 in 2018. Their wild prey population too went up from about 6,400 to 83,000 during the same period. The conservation story of the Asiatic lion in the Gir forests is one of the best wildlife conservation stories in the world and it will continue to be so in the future. But increasing lion and leopard population in the human-dominated landscape is expected to throw a bigger challenge in the future, despite good wildlife management practices.
Writer: Hari Shanker Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer
For a long time, the Royal Bengal Tiger and the Asiatic Lion have been stealing the national limelight, but now the Indian leopard is drawing our attention for a good reason.
The two supercats, the Asiatic lion and the Royal Bengal tiger, drew the maximum attention of conservationists in India. But the third largest cat, the Indian leopard, has its own story under the shadow of its two big tribes. Two recent stories — one, the death of 23 lions in Gir due to CDV and Protozoa infections and second, the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Maharashtra — grabbed headlines in Indian newspapers and electronic media.
But this story is about the smartest big cat — the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), a sub-species of the nine subspecies of all leopards in the world. It is widely distributed across the country — from Jammu & Kashmir in the north-west to the southern part of Tibet in China in the north-east Himalayas to Cape Comorin in the south and from the Gir forest (Saurashtra) and thorn forest in the arid zone of Kachchh in the west to the moist forest of Myanmar in the eastern border of India.
Although a majority of the leopards are confined in India, small populations are also found in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and small areas of southern China adjoining Myanmar. Each of the other seven subspecies of the Asian leopard has a small population, below one thousand, in different Asian countries. After the African leopard, only the Indian leopard has a viable population.
The Indian leopard occurs up to a height of about 5,200 meters in the Himalayas where their habitat meets the lower altitude of the snow leopard. A study revealed that the distribution range of the Indian leopard reduced to 28 percent of its historical distribution range, although the big cat enjoys the highest protection level in our country as it is placed in Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
According to an article published in the Indian Forester in January 1907, a total of 811 leopards and 1,355 tigers were officially killed in 1905 to reduce their menace. Level of killing in the preceding year (1904) was also at the same level. Thus, about 800 to 900 leopards were killed annually in the beginning of the 20th century which increased subsequently later.
It was also mentioned that leopards killed 401 human beings and 44,845 livestock in 1905. Hunting licenses were issued freely to kill wild animals, including leopards. A total of 37,720 hunting licences in 1904 and 37,833 in 1905 were issued in India. As per records, 150,000 leopards were hunted in British India during a span of 50 years (1875-1925) at an annual rate of 3,000 leopards. It was estimated that 100 years ago, India had over 10 times the present population of the tiger. By extending similar logic and studying hunting records, it can be said that the Indian forests had a high population of the leopard before the Second World War. Thereafter, they were killed in thousands, which pushed them to become near extinct. However, conservation measures have reversed the trend.
Distribution range: In a majority of the Indian States, the leopards are dispersing in new areas due to which its population is recovering. Until a few years ago, Punjab was considered to be a non-tiger State as the animal occasionally visited in the winter from the hills of Himachal Pradesh. But in recent times, the Leopards have made a come back in the lower Shivalik hills of Punjab, bordering Himachal Pradesh.
Similarly, about two and a half dozen of leopards marked their presence in the Shivalik of Haryana a decade ago. The animal dispersed from the Shivalik of Himachal Pradesh and from the Aravallis hill ranges of Rajasthan to the forests of Haryana. At present, forests in 10 districts in Shivalik and the Aravallis of Haryana have been captured by the leopards in good numbers.
At present, the Indian leopard is distributed in 29 States and one Union Territory. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have over two-thirds of the total leopard population of the country. In the 1990s, the leopard’s presence was recorded in 196 sanctuaries and national parks across 26 States of the country.
Since then, the number of States and protected areas has increased and expanded. As per latest reports, the animal’s presence has been registered from 384 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country, although few other protected areas are seasonally or occasionally visited by the leopard.
Area of these leopard supporting national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is about 136,550 km. Of this, about 50 tiger reserves and their buffer zones in 17 States are occupied by the Tigers and five national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Gujarat by the Asiatic lion. In the rest of the leopard supporting protected areas, the leopard is a top predator but compete with the hyena. Experts believe that though the sanctuaries and national parks accommodate a good number of the animal, a large number of them are found outside these boundaries than those within, and some are using non-forest areas, including scrublands, tea garden, ravines, sugarcane fields and another vegetation cover.
In the State of Gujarat, as per the leopard census report in 2011, about 38.2 per cent of the leopard population was counted in the protected areas, 18.0 per cent in the sugarcane field, agricultural lands, plantations and ravines, and the rest in the forest areas beyond the boundaries of the protected areas.
Leopard population in protected areas of Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Odisha were about 25.2 percent, 44.1 percent and 35.3 percent respectively. An analysis of data from 12 major leopard States reveals that about one-third of the total leopards were found in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Also, based on census reports of a few States, about 15 percent of the leopards used habitat beyond the boundaries of the forests.
Leopard’s occupancy in the major part of 14 tiger States was 173,900 km in 2014. As per the rough leopard distribution range, provided by the Chief Wildlife Wardens and wildlife experts in the States, the leopards occupy about 114,000 km in other 15 States and Union Territories. Thus, the leopards occupy over 287,900 km forest areas of the country.
Tea gardens have become a major man-leopard conflict zone because a good number of them breed and hunt in these areas. At least 5,670 km area of the hilly terrain or slopes in Nilgiri hills (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka), Darjeeling hills, drained land of Dooars and Terai down the hills in West Bengal and moderate hills and slopes in Assam and other such lands in the North- East States, Uttarakhand and Himachal are under tea cultivation. Presence of leopard and human-leopard conflict in these tea gardens have been recorded for over 100 years. Most of these areas form contiguous leopard habitat with the adjoining forests.
Recently, maximum human-leopard conflicts were recorded in and around the sugarcane fields in some States. Sugarcane cultivation has expanded with the expansion of irrigation network. The adaptive big cat has successfully exploited the dense sugarcane crop for littering. During the last five years, the extent of sugarcane cultivation in India ranged from 44,360 Km to 50,670 km.
Leopards are frequently seen in the sugarcane fields. Majority of such dense tall crops in the four States — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, which cover about 31.9 percent of the sugarcane cultivation area in the country — are inflicted by the leopard. The animal is also seen in the sugarcane fields in Terai belt in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
A recent paper, ‘Big Cat in Our Backyards’, published by the journal ‘Public Library of Science’, made headlines by reporting up to six resident leopards per 100 km in the sugarcane fields in Sangamner region of Maharashtra. The big cats hide in the dense cover of sugarcane crops during the day, preying on dogs, pigs, cattle and poultry in the night in the villages and towns.
When one or two leopards killed five people in Mandvi Taluka of Surat district, Gujarat in the post-monsoon and early winter in 2010, while hunting and trapping the man-eater, about two dozen leopards, including cubs, were eliminated from the sugarcane areas of the villages in three months. When a leopard killed four people in sugarcane zone in Veraval in Junagadh (Gujarat) in March 2012, a total of nine leopards were trapped and removed from the area. There are several such stories in the sugarcane belt.
The extent of forests cover with canopy density of more than 10 per cent is 683,925 sq km in 29 States and one Union Territory which support leopards. The shrublands and ravines outside the forests also support leopards. In the leopard State, about three-fourth of the forest cover is expected to be potential habitat, although present occupancy area of the leopard is lesser than the potential habitats. The analysis indicates that the leopard occupancy area in India may be in an extent of over 300,000 km, although potential habitat is high.
Writer: Hari Shanker Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer
The situation at the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and adjacent areas is getting worse as the death toll of the Asiatic Lions rose to 14 with three more fatalities.
All these casualties of this endangered species belonging to the cat family occurred within a span of a fortnight. Sources in the State Forest Department confirmed that two lionesses aging four and nine as well as a six-month-old cub succumbed to illness.
“Forest beat guards found carcasses of lioness in Dalkhania range of Gir Sanctuary. The cub which was found ill was brought to a rescue centre, but died during treatment,” said an official. Interestingly, two more deaths of lions registered despite the fact the State forest department has formed 64 teams to screen and shift sick lions to rescue centre to prevent further casualties of lions.
Talking to The Pioneer Chief Conservator of Forest, wildlife circle DT Vasavada prima facie the cause of deaths of two big cats seemed to be infection and some disease, but the exact reason of death would be known only after the post-mortem report.
From the first death of lion on September 12, 2018, the State forest officials are maintaining that the cause of death was infighting and territorial war amongst the lions and there wasn’t any human interference in the death of the big cats.
Around a decade ago in the year 2007, poaching of eight Asiatic Lions created lots of hue and cry over the conservation of the endangered species. The then Narendra Modi led Gujarat Government had allocated special funding to protect the lions in the Gir area.
In fact it was because of Modi’s effort to hard sell Asiatic Lions through a tourism campaign in which Amitabh Bachchan was the brand ambassador, tourists from all across the globe are pouring during winter season to see the majestic animal. The deaths would definitely impact tourism activities in the area.
Writer: Nayan Dave
Courtesy: The Pioneer