Lions turning man-eaters is not exactly your exclusive breaking news story. It’s the law of the jungle, after all, and operates in Gir as much as in other places. But other factors contribute equally, and in the Gir forests of Gujarat, home to the Asiatic lion, experts say, one of them is the refusal of Gujarat—home state of the prime minister—to relocate some of the lions to other national parks.
The lions in Gir are the only surviving population of the Asiatic lion. Over the years, this population has grown to 543. But there is a problem. At 1,412 sq km, the Gir National Park (GNP), which is their protected habitat, is too small for this population and supports too small a prey base for the predators. Experts residing in the area estimate that nearly half the lions in Gir now live outside the protected area, coming into conflict with human habitations or itinerants such as pilgrims to the temples in the forested region or passing traffic. Sighting a pride of lions crossing a highway or walking along a road not far from a village or town in the evening is no longer unusual. On hot days, lions are also seen resting near the shaded nesses (or maldhari hamlets). For long, there were hardly any cases of maneating reported.
But now, the local community is alarmed. In just three years, 162 attacks on humans have been reported around Gir. In March this year, Zeena Makwana, a 51-year-old farm labourer who was asleep in a field in Ambardi village in the Dhari taluka of Amreli district, was dragged away by lions in the middle of the night. Those who were with him in the field that night later found one of his limbs lying a little away from the field. In April, three lions attacked a family, killing a woman. And in June, lions attacked and killed a youth.
A certain degree of man-animal conflict has been accepted for ages by the maldharis, or cattle-rearers, who live in the Gir. The staple diet of lions here has been cows and buffaloes belonging to the maldhari groups. They’ve had no quarrel with this either, and consider the lions a divine presence. But after the spate of zattacks, the people of Amreli, near which the incident took place, are demanding that the forest department initiate action against maneating lions.
A ness, maldhari hamlet, inside Gir National Park
The problem of plenty has made the relocation of lions necessary—and urgent. But as chief minister of Gujarat for many years, Modi opposed and scuttled any move to relocate the lions, linking them to Gujarati pride. Indeed, the lion is also the symbol of his pet ‘Make in India’ project. Last year, Gujarat lost an eight-year legal battle to shift lions to the Kuno wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. In fact, a proposal to move the lions to Kuno is ten years old, and it’s been as many years since 24 villages of the Sahariya tribespeople were relocated to create a habitat for lions. The BJP government of Madhya Pradesh had sent a proposal to the Union environment and forests ministry seeking Rs 79 crore in budgetary allocation to shift lions from Gir to Kuno. But it has been ignored.
The effects might soon begin to be felt in places like Aankol Vadi, a hilltop ness housing the extended family of Kanhabhai Appabhai Gadhvi, undisputed leader of the maldharis, along with the livestock they rear, inside the core area of the GNP. Though the area is supposed to be legally free of human presence, there are 54 such nesses. The family has lived here for generations in low, mud-walled huts and keeps some 200 buffaloes. Gadhvi’s son Vijay says they lose livestock worth Rs 3-4 lakh yearly and for generations they have taken it for granted, thinking of it as making an offering to the gods, with the lions symbolising vitality and resilience. He says predators and humans have for long lived in perfect harmony, and his family has even given names to some of the lions living in the vicinity of the ness. “Lions need our presence. They are dependent on us (maldharis),” says Vijay. “We ensure there is easy food available for these lazy predators.” But some maldharis are now getting worried that the lion population is increasing and with the forest shrinking, there might be problems.
Kaushik Banerjee, a lion expert and fellow with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, who has carried out extensive field work for eight years in the Gir forests, believes the cosy relationship Vijay speaks of is bound to end— sooner if not later. “If the ecology of the forest is to be conserved, the maldharis living inside the core area will have to be moved out,” he says. He’s also in favour of relocating some of the lions in order to expand the genetic pool. It’s an idea the maldharis might appreciate, given their empirical understanding, as cattle-breeders, of hybrid vigour and enfeeblement through inbreeding.
While conservationists are worried, they don’t want to come out in open disagreement with the government opposition to relocation. Valmik Thapar, environmentalist and author, describes them as the ‘khichdi lion’—a mix of North American and so-called Asiatic lion. The Indian lion was known for its tameness, docility and inability to behave as a predator in the wild, he says. Now that they are starting to attack the humans they have interacted with for so long, a tipping point could have been reached.
- 287 (1936)
- 219-227 (1950)
- 290 (1955)
- 285 (1963)
- 177 (1968)
- 180 (1974)
- 205 (1979)
- 239 (1985)
- 284 (1990)
- 304 (1995)
- 327 (2001)
- 359 (2005)
- 411 (2010)
- 523 (2015)
The lion population of Gir