February 21, 2020
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A Commoner's Death

As two lions die of a rabies-like disease, concerns of an epidemic worry wildlife officials

A Commoner's Death

NOTHING equals the thrill of encountering the Asiatic lion in the wild. With his bristling mane and glinting eyes, he is the indisputable king of the jungle.

So it's no surprise that the recent news of lion deaths brought the media flocking to Gujarat's Gir forest. At least one lion has died of an unidentified ailment. At present, there's scant evidence to suggest an epidemic. But then this is Gir - the only home for the wild Asiatic lion on the planet. So no one's leaving any stone unturned.

Lions die. Forest officials hastily point out that every lion death is not unnatural; Gir has a population of 304 lions - as per the '95 census - and a death rate of about 15 lions a year. Wildlife experts like Valmik Thapar put the deaths at 30-45 lions a year. "Lions die all the time," says he. "It's not a cause for concern as in the wild, male lions fight each other and kill the cubs." So when the first lioness died on June 4, it wasn't exactly breaking news; she was 17 (average life span being 15 years). On June 20, a one-and-a-half year old female cub died of malnutrition. Forest rangers say she probably strayed away from the pride.

But it was the death of an eight-year-old lion on June 26 that aroused official suspicion. He died after injuring six villagers; the local vet's post-mortem stated the symptoms of his disease were akin to rabies. Samples were sent to the Anand Veterinary College; they couldn't confirm rabies. And as forest officers averred, rabies hasn't been reported in any other animals here over the last six months. One more lion was electrocuted on June 28 after walking into an electrified fence. On July 22, the mystery was revived again when the body of a two-year-old male was found in a nullah-bed. Again, there was no obvious cause of death. According to Mahesh Singh, deputy conservator of forests, viscera samples have been sent to the forensic lab in Junagadh to determine if it was a case of snakebite poisoning.

But no post-mortem reports were made available to Outlook despite repeated requests. "Be frank to say lions do die," admonishes Ravi Chellam, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. "Post such information in the public domain. A dead animal is a mine of information, exploit it for what it's worth."

Information on possible diseases with rabies-like symptoms would give stumped park officials something to begin with. "There could be a long list of diseases with these symptoms," concurs Dr R.G. Jani, coordinator of wildlife health for the western region, at Anand. "Some are more serious than rabies, even epidemic. It's early to get concerned, but such mortalities have to be carefully investigated."

As a precautionary measure, an immunisation drive has been initiated on Gir's domesticated animals. Park conservators say this process, known in wildlife lingo as "throwing the immunisation ring", is an annual procedure to ensure that animals likely to come into contact with the Gir lion are free of infectious diseases. "Not just cattle, but also cats and dogs, both in and outside within five km of the park, must be immunised," says Chellam. "This can only be fruitful if it is an ongoing activity." Park officers argued that as rabies doesn't occur in felines, domesticated cats would be left out of the exercise. But dogs and cattle in the 'impact zone', that is within two km of the park periphery, will be immunised.

"We're not equipped for those who've strayed further," says Singh. He's referring to lion prides that have moved out of the national park and sanctuary through forest corridors and have found homes in Junagadh and Sutrapada, right up to Bhavnagar. These satellite populations are not in the protected forests and are more vulnerable to electrocution, attacks from humans or interaction with diseased animals.

Hype or no hype, the unexplained deaths have spurred on the Centre's lion relocation efforts, under way since the early '90s. As Chellam puts it: "The state of the Asiatic lion is precarious; if you have an infectious disease, the lion goes down the drain."

The concept of translocating the Gir lion has been under discussion since the '50s. But after the fiasco in eastern UP's Chandraprabha sanctuary, where three lions who had been moved in "disappeared" as per official reports, the government's treading carefully. Over the next 10 years, some of Gir's lions will be shifted to Kunopalpur, a 2,700 sq km area near Gwalior in MP.

The work of relocating the human settlements in Kuno has been going on since '94. The rehabilitation of this local population will occur in two phases: 661 families will be moved out in the first phase; 662 in the second. A cost of about Rs 1 lakh has been projected for the rehabilitation of each family, and money for the first phase, Rs 6.6 crore, has already been released. The focus, for now, is on rehabilitation of the local villages, followed by habitat development and a build-up of prey animals. Only then will a few lions be moved in and strictly observed before Kuno can become a second home for the Asiatic lion. "When you put a large carnivore and people together, you're waiting for a conflict to happen," says Chellam. "About 20 clusters of villages will be moved out to pre-empt a human-wildlife conflict."

Precisely such a conflict threatened Gir in the '70s, when the human population touched the 4,000 mark. Between 1972 and 1986, 580 maldhari (local cattle-grazers) families were resettled out of the national park area. With about 361 families remaining to be settled today, a similar situation presents itself as the rising human population threatens to topple the balance. For the maldharis, water and fodder are freely available inside the sanctuary. Houses, hand-pumps and wells are being offered as incentives, but the earlier package also had agricultural land thrown in. "We were moved out of the jungle, where we had lived in harmony with the lion, to the periphery," says Kanabhai, a maldhari. "Now the lions come out of the jungle to attack our cattle." So huge indeed is the cattle population within the sanctuary that the lions have taken to preying on domesticated animals, points out Thapar.

This unique ecosystem, housing 32 mammal species, 300 bird species, 26 reptiles and more than 2,000 species of insects, also sits on prime limestone deposits. It's been steadily encroached upon by quarries just outside its borders. "There are at least 100 mines within a radius of 10 km," says Thapar, "feeding seven cement factories and one soda ash plant." Officials deny there is pressure from them in the sanctuary itself. "It's indirect," says Singh. "They're buying land from nearby villages, and as these villagers lose grazing ground, they come into the sanctuary seeking fodder."

Tourist hordes who visit Gir every year are the other threat to the future of the Asiatic lion. To reduce disturbance from tourists in the main sanctuary and park area, the Gir Interpretation Zone was created, a 412-ha chainlink-fenced area, promoted as "Gir in a nutshell". "Because you have one lion and three lionesses in this small area, you have a 90 per cent chance of seeing a lion and a cent per cent chance of seeing anything," boasts Kuldeep Goel, conservator of forests. This is where Outlook met the king of the jungle in all his leonine glory.

He's come a long way in search of a home. Once, the plains of Asia, from Asia Minor and Arabia through Persia and India, were his. But today, even his last home is threatened, and so he sits on display in a safari park, a king dispossessed of his kingdom.

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