Living with lions

Print edition : March 08, 2013

A scene captured in the Gir Protected Area. Lion conservation is of global significance, given the lion's endangered status. Photo: Bushan Pandya

Siblings in a relaxed mood. Photo: Bushan Pandya

There is no magic pill to solve the problem of human-carnivore conflict. Photo: Bushan Pandya

Between now and the time Zaverchand Meghani wrote his pome 'Charan Kanya' in the early 20th century about a lion-human 'encounter', lion populations in India have dwindled and then expanded. Photo: Bushan Pandya

An adult lion claw-marking a tree. Photo: Bushan Pandya

Besides lions, the Gir forest has a high density of leopards. Photo: Bushan Pandya

Chital deer, important prey for lions and leopards. Photo: Bushan Pandya

Sambar deer, important prey for lions and leopards. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

The beautiful Indian Pitta, whose arrival in Gir signals the onset of the monsoon. Photo: Bushan Pandya

An owl, which forms part of Gir's fauna. Photo: Bushan Pandya

The proud Indian peacock. Photo: Meena Venkataraman.

Bjra crop cultivated on farms around the Gir PA. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

Onion crop cultivated in farms around the Gir PA. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

A woman of the Ahir community, a Maldhari tribe in the Gir area. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

A view of the dry deciduous Gir forest. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

A farmer and his family on their farm. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

A Maldhari resident of the Gir forest. Photo: Bushan Pandya

A Maldhari resident of the Gir forest. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

A typical person from the Siddhi community living in the Gir forest. The Siddhis evoke curiosity because of their African features and distinctive culture. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

Children of the Siddhi community. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

A Maldhari resident of the Gir forest. Photo: Bushan Pandya

Siddhi women with the jamuns they collected. Photo: Bushan Pandya

While the continued growth of the lion population in the Gir Protected Area and the dispersal of lions bring cheer, issues relating to human-carnivore conflict create anxiety for the future.

YOU WOULD HAVE SHED THE PERCEPTION OF THE lion as “lazy” if you had been with me tracking my study-lion on a particularly cold winter night in 2006. Starting its foray from the deep forest in the national park zone of the Gir Protected Area (PA), the lion headed out of the jungle; it first cut across a crop field, then walked some distance on the Jamawala road, a very busy route by day, and then plunged into the villages beyond.

My young assistant and I followed it in the darkness in our four-wheel-drive vehicle guided by the beeps of the radio collar. My two senior trackers had earlier left us to take a well-earned rest after completing their daytime observation duty as part of our day-night continuous monitoring schedule. While the lion continued its confident march into the villages, my vehicle ran into every pit on the bumpy track. As the task of negotiating the terrain in the darkness became increasingly difficult, my field assistant and I were feeling more ill at ease than the lion in being in the villages so far away from the jungle. Finally, at 3-30 a.m., I gave up when I realised that the lion showed no sign of resting and I could drive no further.

Later in the morning, my able team members took up the daunting task of locating the lion again. When they succeeded in doing so, only on the second day, they found it near a village feeding on a cow-kill. Thereafter, it remained in the vicinity of the village for a day or two more. At that time, the lion’s presence in the village and the kill were mere data points in my field notebook, and I neither recognised the emotion associated with the loss of a domestic animal nor grasped the deeper significance of the movement of lions through human habitations.

I completed my doctoral thesis on these aspects of lion ecology and behaviour from the Wildlife Institute of India, and last year I took up another study, this time exploring issues relating to lion conservation. The survey took me to villages on the periphery of the Gir PA to interview people with regard to their experience with and relation to lions and the forest. At the end of it, I was amazed by their enormous tolerance of and immense love for the big cats. At the same time, I could not help admiring the resilience of the king of beasts, who moves with equal ease, nonchalance and majesty across a mosaic of land-use areas, be they crop fields, villages, factories or places of worship. This relationship and state of affairs, in my opinion, is quite significant and augurs well for the future well-being of lions.

Mulling over all the information on my return journey, I sat back feeling reassured. At this point, an engaging chat with an elderly gentleman on the train put all the information in the right perspective. “Are you familiar with the poem Charan Kanya?” he eagerly enquired when he came to know of my association with Saurashtra culture through my nearly decade-long research on lions.

This beautiful, timeless poem by Zaverchand Meghani, which the gentleman was so kind as to share with me, brought to my mind the issues relating to the endangered Asiatic lion and its survival in and around the Gir PA.

The poem

“Sawaj garje” (lion roars) is the opening line of the poem—it speaks of the roar of the king of the jungle echoing in the hills, farms, habitations and along rivers. A wave of fear springs in the hearts of man and beast and even passes on to the trees and streams of the jungle. A brave Charan lass, all of 14, stands up against this mighty lion. Wielding a mere stick, she commands him to stop in his tracks and get back into the jungle. What a sight to behold, says the poet, as the lion runs like a coward in fear of this girl!

The people

The poem brings to life the mighty roar of the lion, its reverberation all round, the fear it evokes and the courage shown by the girl. The poem, though written in the early 20th century, immediately strikes a chord and gives one a sense of what has defined the life of generations of people living in and around the Gir jungle: of the fear, and of dreaded encounters. It immediately brings to mind the resplendent Maldharis, still pursuing their traditional pastoral livelihood in the dusty brown jungles of the Gir. The line “Ness nivasi Charan Kanya” (the Charan girl who resides in a ness) in the poem refers to the typical Maldhari hut made of grass and mud that is enclosed within a thorny stockade where the livestock is secured by night. Charans, Bharwads, Rabaris, Ahirs and Mers are five communities of the Maldhari tribes and are considered to be the oldest inhabitants of Saurashtra. The majority of the resident Gir Maldharis belong to the former three groups. Charans, or Gadvis, were erstwhile chroniclers and royal bards and are still well known for their rich poetry and traditional music.

Apart from the Maldharis, the “Gir people” are the Siddhis and other mainstream communities living in the fringe villages. The Siddhis are a community that evokes curiosity because of its African features and distinctive culture, which has a blend of traditional Gujarati culture added to it. Its ancestors could have been tradesmen or the members of the entourage of an African consort of the Nawab of Junagadh or the nawab’s specialist team brought especially for lion management. (Three generations of the Nawabs of Junagadh were involved in lion conservation.) Within Gir, the Siddhis can be found in Shirvan village, one of the 14 forest settlements on lease since the time of the nawabs. At present, 97 villages exist in the eco-fragile zone within the five-kilometre boundary of the Gir PA. Agriculture is the chief occupation, and mango, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, bajra, pulses and cotton are also cultivated. Each house has two or three cows, buffaloes or oxen to meet household needs. Among the many communities settled in these villages, it is the Maldharis who are entirely dependent on animal husbandry.

The predicament

Loss of livestock and encounters leading to injury to or the death of people are the two issues that define the conflict in human-carnivore interface zones. The magnitude of such a conflict, (local) people’s attitude, and mitigation are the three aspects of carnivore conservation management. Globally, the issues of human-carnivore conflict resulting from the expansion or growth of both human and carnivore populations can be disposed of with the same set of practices, such as monetary compensation and removal of problem animals, thus relying more on “treatment” and less on “remedy”. There is no magic pill to cure the problem, but something can be done to deal with the symptoms and reduce the pain (the loss of livestock, in this case). Incessant conflict mitigation is thus an important part of present-day carnivore management. The dilemma of prioritising wildlife conservation over the interests of local communities is the first-level issue that often needs to be addressed. It is a complex one which requires tremendous vision and careful planning.

The Gir Sanctuary and National Park, the home of the Asiatic lion, spreads across two districts of Gujarat, Amreli and Junagadh. But the present-day lion habitat encompasses a larger area and includes a portion of Bhavnagar district. About 25 per cent of the lion population is distributed beyond the Gir PA in the “Greater Gir” area, including the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mitiyala Wildlife Sanctuary, the Paniya Sanctuary, and pockets of natural habitats in and around Savarkundla, Palitana and also, quite remarkably, the coastal areas. Lions have been present in these areas since the late 1990s, and their presence is new to the local people, who, therefore, have no memory of a historical coexistence.

The subspecies Panthera leo persica, or Persian lion, survives as a single, free-ranging population only in the Gir forest in India and nowhere else in the world. It is however more than a symbol of Saurashtra culture. Lion conservation is of global significance and national pride, given the lion’s endangered status. Between the time that the poem was composed and now, lion populations have dwindled and then expanded. The noble cause of lion conservation has passed from the Nawabs of Junagadh to the State Forest Department. The habitat, prey base and lion numbers have been successfully strengthened in this time.

Management issues

The animosity against lions and the retaliatory killing of lions predating on livestock in the 1970s were eased through timely management interventions, including the partial removal of resident communities from the Gir PA and the introduction of monetary compensation for livestock losses. Since then, the wild ungulate population has increased as a result of habitat recovery, reducing the lion’s dependency on livestock. The focus of concern has now shifted to areas outside the PA where lion movement has increased.

The popular belief is that when the Maldharis were moved out of Gir, lions followed them and that the recent lion dispersal does not have much to do with the increase in predator density within the park. It is not uncommon to see lions and leopards close to a village or even passing through one. At these interface areas, livestock depredation is a worrying aspect of human-carnivore conflict, with over a thousand livestock compensation claims occurring a year. The population of another stealthy predator, the leopard, has been growing over the years though it is not as much talked about as the charismatic lion.

The leopard is responsible for the majority of human-carnivore encounters in the peripheral areas. The number of lion/leopard attacks on humans has increased in the past 10 years. Most of them are accidental encounters that occur when leopards take refuge in sugarcane fields. To mitigate conflict of this nature, the Forest Department removes problem-causing animals from the local villages, which reassures them and, at the same time, helps build a trusting relationship with them.

No doubt, “tolerance” is cultural as communities living in proximity to forests have coexisted with lions peacefully for generations. This is not something to be taken for granted, and indeed, as we all know but are not willing to acknowledge, this attitude is likely to change owing to changing aspirations and circumstances. During my surveys in the past year and meetings with local people, I was delighted by their love of and the pride they took in the lions. When I enquired whether they would like to wish the lions away, the majority were unwilling to do so. They were of the opinion that the forest existed because of the lions and that they would gladly welcome a few more around their village. Although livestock losses have escalated in the past few years, people continue to have a positive attitude towards lions and leopards. It was in the villages near the Greater Gir around Palitana and the coastal habitats, where the presence of lion is a recent phenomenon, that there was a sense of unease and fear. It thus seems that the farther lions disperse from the Gir PA, the less positive may be people’s attitude towards them because of the economic loss and danger they pose.

These issues become more relevant when planning long-term lion conservation. The free movement of lions across habitations into available natural habitats must be further facilitated, failing which localised or restricted lion presence within an area can escalate conflict. For this reason, development activities such as construction of roads around the Gir PA should be planned with caution. While the continued growth of the lion population and the dispersal of lions bring cheer, issues relating to conflict and people’s tolerance of lions create trepidation and anxiety for the future if initiatives like shifting to alternative habitats fail. My own positive attitude tells me that determined management, local community support and the lion’s resilience will stand the test of time if we simply carry forward the present acceptance of and love for lions into the future.

Meena Venkataraman has a PhD from the Wildlife Institute of India and has published several research papers and popular articles on lions. Her work, which now spans a decade, was highlighted in the BBC documentary “Last Lions of India”.

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