Lions are spilling out of the Gir sanctuary and into the rest of Saurashtra. The latest and the largest yet census of Asiatic lions shows a 27% increase in the lion population from 411 in 2010 to 523 this year. But a more interesting statistic of the 22,000 kilometre-wide count is that the lion population within the sanctuary grew only 4%, while the number in surrounding areas and closer to human habitation grew by a whopping 130%.

The new census has again brought to the fore the debate about translocating lions to other wildlife reserves in the country. Translocating lions has been proposed in the past by the National Wildlife Board and is part of the National Wildlife Action Plan.

The Supreme Court in 2013 ordered the Gujarat government to shift some lions from Gir to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh. The Gujarat government has resisted the move on the grounds that the animal is the pride of the state that cannot be shared with another state. HS Singh, former conservator of the Gir Sanctuary and current member of the National Wildlife Board, argues that Kuno’s climate is unsuitable for lions. “In Kuno, the temperatures recorded are 49 degree Celsius. In Gir, because of the coastal area, the coast moderates the temperatures and it remains 2-3 degree Celsius lower,” Singh said.

Wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam counters this claim on the grounds that the lion is a highly adaptable animal and has historically existed in very different temperature zones and habitats. Chellam is sure that translocation is essential to ensure the big cat’s long-term survival. “Let us view translocation as life insurance for free-ranging lions,” he said. “We forget about the fact that habitat is being lost, habitat is being fragmented. Having all your eggs in one basket and those risks far outweigh [the cost] even if you kill ten animals in the translocation process.” The fear of losing a majority of lions in one fell swoop is real. In 1994, a canine distemper infection in the Serengeti wiped out 30% of the African lions there.

Man-animal interaction

The other question that keeps cropping up is that of resettling the Maldhari tribe, leaving the sanctuary to animals. In the early 1970s, lions preyed mostly on livestock, with the chital, sambar and wild boar making up only 25% of their prey. The government at the time undertook a project to resettle the Maldharis in an attempt to leave the forest undisturbed for the animals. In subsequent years, the forest saw a dramatic rise in the numbers of wild prey as grazing land was freed up.

However, the persistence of the Gir lions is closely linked to the cohabitants of its forest – the Maldharis. “The problem was not really the Maldhari cattle but migratory cattle coming in from as far away as Kutch,” said Chellam about Gir’s livestock overkill in the 1970s. “It was the seasonal influx that was a problem.”

A 2013 study by researchers at the Wildlife Institute of India found that the lions and Maldharis have an interdependent relationship that benefited the Maldharis economically too. The word Maldhari means “owner of cattle stock”. The community of pastoralists live scattered through the national park in small clusters of families, each one called a ness. Lions still prey on Maldhari livestock as a significant food source. But the tribe has long accepted livestock raids by the felines as a part of their existence in its home. Scientists and journalists visiting the Gir have reported Maldharis saying that a lion kill is considered an offering and written off.

As long as lions exist and thrive, the Gir forest will exist and thrive, leaving the Maldharis their traditional livelihood of cattle grazing and living off forest produce. Free grazing rights in the Gir and compensation offered by the government offset almost 80% of the Maldhari cattle-rearing cost, the wildlife institute study said.

Like all other communities, the Maldharis’ relationship with their surroundings has evolved over the years. As they have started selling milk and dairy products commercially, refrigerated trucks now come into the sanctuary right up to the nesses to collect the produce. This leads to accidents with prey animals, noise and dust pollution. Yet, Chellam said, there is still no ecological or social justice reasons to relocate the Maldharis.

“As such, the Maldharis’ relationship with the animals is not abrasive in anyway but with the population spilling over if they want to move out of the region it should be facilitated properly,” said Meena Venkataraman, an independent lion researcher. Venkataraman observes that dairy is a profitable and good business for the Maldharis but coming generations may not opt for this line of hard work.

The Nawab who saved the lion

The Asiatic lion, which is only found in the Gir and its vicinity, has been on the brink of extinction at least twice in recorded history. In what might have been the first lion census, British officer Colonel Watson 1880 counted only 12 lion in the Gir forests. Till then the lion was fair game and bounties were offered on lions, describes Sudipta Mitra in the book Gir Forest and the Saga of the Asiatic Lion. The Nawab of Junagarh was one of the first champions to come to the animals’ rescue. He banned the killing of lions unless it was with his approval and the area was transformed into a royal game reserve.

By 1905 the number of lions had climbed again to a respectable 100, before plummeting again to below 20 in 1913, as hunting lions for game continued and animal-human conflict became more common.

By the 1920s, when it became increasingly clear that western India was the last refuge of the Asiatic lion, British and Indian authorities threw their weight behind protecting the animal – a policy that continued into independent India. Ever since the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 1965, the population of lions has only steadily grown.