In His Majestys den

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

A lion resting in the Gir forest.-MUKESH ACHARYA

A lion resting in the Gir forest.-MUKESH ACHARYA

THE lion, a young male, lay crouched some 15 metres from the road. Realising that it had been spotted, it lowered its head and flattened its ears in an attempt to hide. I took out my camera and signalled to those behind me to stop and be silent. And, as it slowly raised its ears, I took a photograph. Then I advanced to the edge of the road to take another. The lion flattened its ears again, this time maybe as a sign of aggression, and then abruptly got up and ran away without even a growl.

My companions included four forest staff, Dr. Bivash Pandav from the WWF-International and Dr. Pranav Trivedi from the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. I had helped several students from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehra Dun, in their research in the Gir Protected Area (1,470 sq km, which comprises the sanctuary and the national park) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Pranav had been researching on peafowl here for his Masters dissertation. Now, in the early part of February 2009, we were together on the 115-km trek from Pipadwa village in eastern Gir to Sasan in western Gir. Our aim was to quantify the lion and ungulate abundance and evaluate the status of the habitat in the park. The Gujarat Forest Department, besides giving us permission, made use of this opportunity by sending teams of staff to learn as much natural history from us as possible.

We would leave early in the morning when the temperature was a little above 20C, walk until midday when the temperature touched 36C, rest in the cool shade of a nallah until around 3 oclock in the afternoon and then walk the remaining distance to our destination. Every day we covered close to 20 km. Unfortunately, I could not complete the entire trek owing to personal reasons and my walk came to an end at central Gir, close to Chodavadi where I had radio-collared lions in the late 1980s. While Pranav and Bivash continued and finished the walk three days later, I returned to Sasan and Ahmedabad in a vehicle via Chodavadi, Kankai and Amla hillock, driving through this part of Gir after a span of nearly 20 years.

The walk and the drive gave me sufficient opportunities to renew my contact with Gir and revel in the wildlife splendours of the worlds only Asiatic lion habitat. We went to bed and woke up in the mornings to the roar of lions in the Mitiyala forests a satellite population that links the Gir lions with those of Hipavadli. We enjoyed the early morning fragrance of the snow-white flowers of Karamda (Carissa carandus) and Nevri (Ixora arborea) in the cool shades of nallahs, and watched the chinkara gazelle and the chowsingha antelope disappear over the hills in fluid leaps.

We flushed sand grouses crouching camouflaged amidst the grasses and rocks along the burnt verges (burning is done by the Forest Department as a fire-management measure), and watched the full moon rise and bathe the golden hills in a silvery light. Once, as the near-full moon rose over the Bhimchas forests, we heard a leopard and a lion roaring repeatedly, as though challenging each other. We observed a mugger float like a log in the Rawal reservoir and admired in silence, in the headlight of our vehicle, the lithe grace of a leopard as it slunk into cover.

The historical distribution of the Asiatic lion, which morphologically differs from its African counterpart in having a belly fold, stretched from Syria, across West Asia to eastern India. In his book The Gir Lion, Indian Forest Service officer H.S. Singh concludes that the present range of Gir lions is limited to the three Gujarat districts of Junagadh, Amreli and Bhavnagar, covering a total area of 8,500 sq km. If the areas recently visited by some lions, especially nomads, are also included, this range or Greater Gir is as large as 10,500 sq km. Conflict with people, in the form of depredation of cattle, is high outside the Gir Protected Area. People retaliate occasionally by poisoning the lions or electrocuting them using power stolen from government supply lines.

Besides the Gir Protected Area (which includes the Mitiyala wildlife sanctuary,18 sq km), other key lion habitats in Greater Gir are Girnar (180 sq km), the Coastal Forests (110 sq km) and the Hipavadli zone (250 sq km). The Gujarat government plans to develop the Barda area (ca 500 sq km), not connected to Greater Gir, as the second home for the lion. It intends not to restore the habitat connectivity between Barda and Greater Gir in the hope that any disease affecting Gir lions will not be transmitted to Barda lions and vice versa. Sustained and systematic efforts, on the contrary, will be made to strengthen the existing connectivities between the Gir Protected Area and the habitats of the satellite populations.

One worrying problem about Gir lions, whether it is inside the protected area or outside it, is their predilection for livestock, which are easily hunted and commonly available. Nearly 50 per cent of the Gir lion diet is reported to be livestock and the rest comprises prey such as the chital, the sambar, the nilgai and the wild pig. This dependency on livestock often leads to attacks on humans, more frequently outside the protected area. Our enquiries revealed that the lions inside the Gir forest are much more tolerant of people. The people inside Gir are also capable of avoiding sudden encounters with lions an ability not much evident in the people who live outside.

The morning we left Bhimchas on our way to Hadala we heard lions roaring at a distance. I thought two males could be fighting. The staff said they were possibly attacking maldhari (pastoralist) buffaloes near one of their nesses (camps). There was total silence after the first roar. When we returned to the road after an hour of futile search over hills and valleys, we met three maldharis. They said eight lions, including a few cubs, had attacked buffaloes and although the lions had been driven away, a calf had been injured.

Like all other protected area in the country, Gir also faces the problem of having numerous settlements on the periphery as well as inside. There are about 97 revenue villages on the periphery with a population of about 150,000 and 14 forest settlement villages with about 4,500 people and 4,000 livestock. Fortunately, except for two forest villages the rest are on the fringes of the protected area and therefore their impact on the protected area may not be serious.

On the first day of our trek, as we approached Gidharadi revenue village, we met villagers going into the forests for over a kilometre to collect firewood and fodder. If such a situation persists around all the revenue and forest villages and around the 50 or so maldhari nesses (which still persist in the sanctuary area outside the 250-sq km national park) then the impact on the habitat will be enormous. One way of reducing this impact would be to permit the people to use a one-kilometre belt of forest around each settlement to meet their fodder and firewood needs through plantation and fodder cultivation programmes assisted by the Forest Department and other conservation agencies.

Around 1985, forest officials in north and central India were baffled by incidents of poaching in which bones of the slain tigers were taken away. In some instances the skins were left behind. This was the time when tiger poaching for bones, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), was spreading into Indian tiger habitats. This depleted the tiger numbers in many of our reserves and even led to the extinction of the tiger in places such as the Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2004. No one thought that this demand for tiger bones would lead to the traders promoting lion poaching.

In April 2004, a lion was found in the Dedakadi forest range, near the Gir headquarters at Sasan, with its right paw nearly ripped off a sure sign of the use of a leg-hold jaw trap, which is commonly used to kill tigers. Soon officials detected organised poaching of lions, and there were reports of bones being removed from carcasses, and it came to light that tribal poachers from Madhya Pradesh, disguised as agricultural labourers, were killing the lions. The needle of suspicion pointed persistently to the TCM business as it is difficult to differentiate bones of lions from those of tigers.

Conservationists, already upset with the episodes of tiger-poaching incidents, created a furore about the lion poaching, which made Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi visit Gir twice in April and May 2007. The Chief Minister held discussions with the village elders and senior forest officials to identify the problems that hindered effective protection. When problems such as the lack of young staff (there had been no recruitment for several decades) and the paucity of equipment such as wireless and firearms were pointed out, the Chief Minister issued orders to rectify the situation. Young villagers were recruited as watchers and forest guards and sufficient firearms and wireless sets were secured. The effectiveness of the intervention was evident when we walked through the forest we were accompanied by many young staff and we did not come across illegal activities such as tree felling in the forests, which were reported to be rampant as late as a year ago.

However, numerous problems such as increasing pilgrimage and vehicular traffic within Gir, the threat of new developments breaking corridor connectivity, declining tolerance for wildlife in the younger generation and the rapid increase in human population in the Greater Gir area endanger the lion and its habitat. Meanwhile, some suggestions that can be more immediately addressed come to my mind.

Teak trees, which provide neither food nor quality shade in summer and whose dry leaf litter is a fire hazard, have crowded certain parts of central and western Gir. There is an urgent need to thin and remove them in certain locations so as to create open areas that will benefit the most abundant chital deer, thus increasing the prey biomass available to the lions. Open wells within the forest as well as in the neighbouring agricultural fields frequently take their toll on the lions, and such wells should be securely covered.

Civil works such as unwanted construction of check dams across nallahs, which is often an eyesore in some places, should be avoided. If blackbucks can occur in the undulating hilly tracks of the Sigur range in the Nilgiris in South India, eastern Gir can also support a sizable population of blackbuck, which could augment the prey base, if a proper introduction programme is carried out. An unsuccessful attempt was made in the 1970s.

My memory goes back to a morning near Bhimchas nearly 20 years ago, when I led a research team from the WII on foot through a patch of dry, tall grass. My attention was suddenly drawn to something black that twitched in the grass. The movement and the sound made me stop and watch intently. An adult lion lay crouched facing in my direction hardly 10 metres from me. I held my breath and retreated slowly. Seeing me retreat, my colleagues fell back. The lion had only been warning me because as soon as I withdrew, the twitching, which is a sign of alertness and can be a prelude to an attack, stopped. I came out of the patch of grass without ever seeing the lion in full.

Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh is a wildlife biologist with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.

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