The last refuge of Asiatic lions needs extension

Everyone knows about African lions, the kings and queens of the savannah, but there is another place on Earth that lions inhabit. You might be surprised to learn that the Asiatic lion, another subspecies of this big cat, resides in the Gujarat state of India, which is its last and only area of distribution. 

As we arrive in Greater Gir, we are stunned to be presented with a proper conservation success story. After being at the brink of extinction, the lion population is steadily growing, they are spreading quickly, and the local community is overall supportive. We are interested to find out: what are the secrets of coexistence between Gir’s lions and people, and why does this topic spark a controversy among Indian conservationists?

The abode of Asiatic lions

The Asiatic lion was one found widely across the Middle East and Asia. However,  overhunting and retaliatory killing to protect livestock led to the decimation of the population. By 1893, there were only 18 animals left on Earth, and their last refuge became the region of Gir. Today, Gir National Park is famous all across the world for hosting the last Asiatic lions, the population of which, thanks to focused conservation efforts, is now on an upward trend. This progress is promising but the numbers are still low. In comparison with the population of 20,000 wild African lions, the total population of Asiatic lions was estimated at 678 individuals during the most recent 2020 census.

Asiatic lions are smaller in size than their African counterparts. They also have sparser manes than African lions do, but they tend to have bushier tails and longer tufts of hair on their elbows (Photos by Vikram Gadhavi).

Therefore, we were eager to visit the last home of these endangered animals together with our companions Vikram Gadhavi and Paresh Kodiya, two Gujarati conservationists. Usually, people go for a jeep safari inside Gir National Park to encounter lions. But Vikram has other plans for us. We are heading to Greater Gir, the region surrounding the national park. In fact, Vikram tells us that only about ⅓ of all Asiatic lions are found inside the park. The remaining ⅔ are present in other protected areas and agro-pastoral landscapes of the Saurashtra region. And what better way to get an insight than meeting with local pastoral communities who have been actually living with lions for centuries? Vikram’s proposal convinces us, and we set off.

Where humans and lions share the land

As the lion population has been steadily increasing, the area of Gir National Park reached its carrying capacity. Asiatic lions require large territories, so they started moving outwards from the sanctuary and establishing homes outside protected areas. 

The Gir region is inhabited by pastoral communities called the Maldharis. They have been sharing their home with lions for as long as they can remember, and lions are represented in their traditional songs, folk tales and sculptures. Every year, they lose up to 1000 livestock to lions, tells us Yasin Juneja, Range Forest Officer at the Forest Department in Savarkundla. The cost of one buffalo is 1 lakh INR or 1000€, and many families only keep a few livestock at home. Therefore, any predation by lions can take a big chunk of their livelihood. Hence, the government offers compensation for any casualties by predators. For comparison with buffaloes, the state of Gujarat sets the compensation for human death by wildlife attack at 5 lakhs INR or 5000€ to the family of the deceased (this number varies state by state, for example in Maharashtra it is 20 lakhs INR). However, in contrast to the leopard, the more problematic resident cat, this compensation scheme doesn’t really concern lions, as the chance of lion attacks on humans is practically zero. 

This elevated cage serves as a refuge for farmers who want to stay on their farmland overnight to protect it. The Forest Department equips farmers with such structures to protect them from predator – mostly leopard – attack.

The growing lion population can be directly attributed to the dedication of local communities and the effort of local conservation groups. The people living around Gir have a deep respect for the lions. “They patrol the jungle, become lion trackers employed by the Forest Department, and they keep an eye on poachers,” says Mr. Juneja. 

The green warriors of Savarkundla

We have the luck to meet one of such local conservation groups. In the town of Savarkundla, we are greeted by a group of men dressed in green. On the back of their shirts we see ‘Van Prakruti Charitable Trust’. Started in 2003 by five people, the group has 72 members as of today. All of them are volunteers and aim to make Savarkundla a greener and safer place for humans and wildlife. “We started this trust because we wanted to become active members in the protection of our own nature. We know our home and see the challenges both people and wildlife face here. We believe that if more and more people unite, it doesn’t take much to make a positive impact,” tells us Gunjan Bhatt, one of the founding members. We meet many of the volunteers. They are businessmen, teachers, handymen, doctors and others, who spend their own salary and time to protect nature. As they stand there in front of us, proud and united in their mission, we are deeply touched. We have never met such a huge group of volunteers, coming from all professions and age groups, who put such an effort, and their own resources into nature protection. 

“Nature gives us so much already. It is our duty to give back. The compensation for our work is given by nature itself.”

Gunjan Bhatt, Van Prakruti Charitable Trust

We cross long lines of young tree saplings, all planted by the members of Van Prakruti. They also identified several areas along the railway line that crosses Gir, where lions lost their lives due to collisions with the train. Together with the Forest Department, the group convinced the railway to lower the speed of trains and constructed fences along the problematic areas, drastically decreasing the number of lion deaths. Members of Van Prakruti also participate in the periodic lion censuses organised by the Forest Department. 

But they do even more. From their own pocket, they give out 1000 litres of buttermilk each day at a local temple, feeding 400-500 families every morning – an activity which they have been keeping up since 2018. They do plastic cleanups, give out cotton bags and have a 24/7 hotline for wildlife rescue. They also organise the yearly World Lion Day in Savarkundla, where 3000 students participated last year. The latter is an activity held all across Gujarat, and last year 1.4 million people participated in the World Lion Day on the 10th of August. It is mind-blowing to see how much can be achieved if not only conservationists recite again and again how important it is to protect nature, but locals from all backgrounds unite for this purpose as well.

From tree planting through waste collection and wildlife rescue to food distribution, the members Van Prakruti Charitable Trust are involved in many voluntary activities.

All eyes on the lions

Together with Vikram, Paresh, Gunjan and a few others at Van Prakruti, we head out to the field. We drive to a forest area and lion habitat to meet with a few local lion trackers. They are tasked to observe lions 24/7 by the Forest Department, throughout day and night. Nowadays it is less poaching and more private, illegal lion safaris which they have to keep an eye on. After many years of experience on the field, they know each lion and their exact location. In fact, they tell us that the lions recognise them as well. We can experience this ourselves when a lion tracker takes us on a short walk. After a brief 15 minutes, we find ourselves face-to-face with three beautiful lionesses, who couldn’t care less about their new observers. They know that we don’t mean any harm and tolerate us so close to them because of the lion tracker, who they know and trust. This gives us the unforgettable opportunity to marvel at their beauty and majesticness for a long time.

Vikram talks to a lion tracker. Living inside the forest, he has been sharing space with lions and their prey for over 20 years.

The Forest Department has a very meticulous monitoring regime. Every full moon they organise a lion count, and every 5 years there is a large scale census. Moreover, they try to intervene whenever an adult or cub gets injured through a fight or falling into an open well. They take the individual in, treat and release it once recovered. Forest officers tell us that lions by themselves come close to villages if they are injured, seeking help. 

It is hard to judge the truth to this claim, but what quickly becomes clear to us is that the state of Gujarat, including all Forest Departments working in Gir put a lot of resources into the management of the lion population. Resources that are “taken away” from other species and ecosystems in Gujarat, also shifting the conservation and ecotourism focus, putting the lions in the sole limelight. 

Habitats are lacking, but Gujarat doesn’t want to share

As a growing population descending from a few individuals, the Asiatic lions don’t have a lot of genetic diversity to protect them from disease. The lions are also getting squeezed in their current habitat, giving way to more chances of human-wildlife conflict. 

This is why conservationists all across India have been speaking up about moving part of the lions to another, big sanctuary. Spreading the lions out would give them a better chance to survive a possible catastrophic pandemic. To facilitate this, the government of India started ‘Project Lion’ in 2020, naming one of their objectives “to avert any risk of extinction to Asiatic lions and ensure their perpetuation for generations to come.” 

But the local government of Gujarat doesn’t want to share the lions. The Gujarat State Wildlife Department even ignored the ruling of the supreme court to move the animals outside the state, suggesting they would be better off living in two other parks within their state. Since the clear court ruling, Gujarat has been successfully holding on to the lions. Kuno National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which was named as the most suitable prospective new habitat for Asiatic lions, serves instead as the first ever African cheetah release site in India.

The motivation of the state of Gujarat is clear. These rare but easy to observe animals became a draw for tourists. If Asiatic lions existed elsewhere in India as well, Gir would no longer be unique, and lions would no longer be the “pride of Gujarat”. New plans to translocate a few lions to Barda Wildlife Sanctuary within Gujarat seem to settle the dispute for now. Only time will tell whether such greed will have a tragic consequence for the last Asiatic lions. Until then, conservationists will continue to try and get their message across. If we want to protect Asiatic lions, we need to give them more space, not restricted by state, or in fact, national borders.

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