As hundreds of stranded villages in Gujarat’s Amreli district struggle to cope with this week’s destructive floods, wildlife enthusiasts have been worried about the fate of endangered lions in the Gir forests of the region.

For the past three days, torrential rains triggered floods across five districts in Saurashtra, submerging villages and farms and displacing thousands. On Friday, Gujarat’s health ministry reported at least 70 deaths across the state, although disaster management officials claim that the figure is exaggerated.

“So far 45 people have died in the floods, 13,000 have been evacuated and eight people are still missing in Amreli and Rajkot districts,” said Bipin Bhatt, the director of relief and rescue operations in Gujarat. “Our electricity board is working day and night to restore power to areas that are cut off, but otherwise the rains have stopped now and the flood situation is very much under control.”

Amreli, by all accounts, has been the worst affected, where 33 people have died and 600 inundated villages are now dependent on the National Disaster Relief Force and the Indian Air Force for food and other humanitarian aid. The forested areas of southern Amreli are also home to many Asiatic lions of the Gir wildlife sanctuary, and in the midst of all the chaos, forest authorities have been concerned about their safety.

Worrying signs?

On June 25, residents of Amreli’s Bavadi village discovered the body of a lioness floating in the murky flood waters of a farm. As many as 50 lions had been living near the villages around Bavadi, on the banks of the river Shetrunji that had overflowed during the heavy rains.

Forest officials have sent out teams to reach out to those villages, but have not officially attributed the lioness’s death to the floods. “We don’t know for sure how the lioness died – she could have been diseased,” said an official from the Gujarat government’s department of forests. “From our side we are trying to pump out the water from the areas where lions live. And we are trying to provide them with food by making sure that the animals they prey on – like cheetal – do not fall ill.”

Concern about the lions’ flooded habitats increased after a video of a lion walking along a national highway in Gujarat hit the news channels on June 24. The cell phone video was shot by a passing commuter and has been perceived as a sign of wildcats attempting to escape flooded forest areas.

Nothing to worry about

Some wildlife conservationists, however, believe that people are getting too carried away with their concern for the survival of Gir’s lions. The Asiatic lion is undoubtedly and endangered species – there are only 523 of them left, almost all of them in Gir – but they are very unlikely to drown in the floods.

“The Gir national park has got a lot of elevations and hills that lions retreat to when it floods, so this is not new,” said K Ramesh, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India. “There is also nothing new about spotting a lion along a highway, especially since their population has been increasing.”

Flooding is a risk to all animals, but wildlife is far more likely to perish in flood plains like the ones at the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary in Assam.

“In Kaziranga, many animals do die during floods, and many move to another, hillier sanctuary nearby,” said Anish Andheria, president of the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Trust. “Some amount of mortality for various reasons is natural, but lions have survived through many floods and can look after themselves.”

While the Saurashtra floods need not be a major cause of worry for India’s lions, there are some who believe the risk posed to the animals is a good reminder of the fact that the Gir forests are the only natural home for endangered lions in the country.

“The floods are a reminder that we need to translocate some lions to other sanctuaries so that they can survive outside Gir as well,” said Ravi Chellam, a senior wildlife conservationist. “Right now, we are putting all our eggs in the same basket.”