Last December, in two separate incidents on the same day, lions attacked and killed two people outside their habitat in the Gir forest, the only abode of the Asiatic lion. Worried forest officials classified the incidents as rarest of the rare, given that the wild cats seldom kill humans unless provoked.

But with lions killing four more people over the last three months, the phenomenon is no longer rare. This is besides the latest attack on a 30-year-old man on Saturday, May 28, who was rushed to a hospital.

All the seven attacks since December were unprovoked. The victims were killed either while sleeping in the fields, relieving themselves, or while keeping watch over farms and mango orchards.

The real big story is that all the attacks took place outside the animal's natural habitat, in non-forest revenue areas heavily populated by humans and hubs of social and commercial activity.

Expanding territory

There is nothing to suggest that such incidents will not recur, given the fact that the Asiatic lion is no longer restricted to its traditional zone of 6,000 sq-km. According to the 2015 census, these lions have now expanded their fiefdom to a staggering 22,000 sq-km across eight of the nine districts in the sprawling Saurashtra region. Their territory could well expand, given that the number of lions has been increasing over the years thanks to conservation efforts. From 411 in the 2010 census, the number of Asiatic lions rose to 523 in last year’s census.

According to Jamaal Ahmed Khan, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife, around 40% of these lions have been roaming in regions outside their natural habitat.

This explains the increasing attacks on humans, as well as the growing number of accidental deaths of lions. There have been cases of lions being mowed down by vehicles and goods trains plying between mining and port areas. There have also been incidents of lions falling into open wells and being electrocuted by fences put up by farmers to protect their agricultural produce.

Apart from busy railway lines, five state highways traverse through the forest. There is a cement factory less than 15-km from the Gir sanctuary and there has been an increase in sand mining activities. There are also three major temples and 23 shrines that are a big draw for tourists and pilgrims. With heavy tourist traffic, hotels and guest houses – both legal and illegal – have been mushrooming in the region. There are nearly a hundred of them within a 6 km radius of the Sasan-Gir forest. The Gujarat High Court ordered the closure of 66 such facilities operating without the required permissions in the sanctuary’s buffer zone of Junagadh, Amreli and Gir-Somnath districts.

As many as 310 lions and 547 leopards have died in the region over the last five years. Last year, 91 lions died, up from 78 in 2014 and 76 in 2013. Gujarat forest minister Mangubhai Patel claims the majority of deaths were from natural causes.

Time bomb

The Gujarat government celebrated the result of the 2015 census, which showed an increase of 82 lions over the previous five years. While HS Singh, a veteran forest officer and senior member of the National Board for Wildlife, shared their joy, he was conscious of the rider in that statistic.

“We’re sitting on a time bomb with such exponential growth of lions outside the protected areas, and this is spilling into the entire Saurashtra region,” Singh said. “The challenge is not just about developing new habitats for the lions complete with prey base and water points, which itself is a Herculean task, but also about managing the near impossible man-animal conflict which is already happening.”

The 2015 census, which was the biggest-ever, covered 22,000 sq-km and found a rise of only 4.4% or 14 lions in the sanctuary and protected forest areas, as against an increase of 130% or 96 lions in areas of human habitation with increasing commercial activities.

For Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife, Jamaal Ahmed Khan, the immediate concern was the anger among the locals in Amreli district, where the lions recently killed three people. Another death of a 70-year-old woman happened on May 25 in the Gir-Somnath district.

In all the four cases, the villagers said the beasts ate up the flesh of the deceased, giving rise to the fear that some lions may have turned man-eaters. In the May 28 attack in an Amreli district village, Chandru Vala, 30, was admitted in a local hospital with several paw wounds on his back and the waist.

“We have trapped and caged an entire pride of 16 lions in phases during the last three days [May 21-23] as a precautionary measure to ensure no more attacks,” he said. “People are very angry and it is also our duty to protect human beings along with the animals.”

Forest officials, in the meantime, were also waiting for the stool test reports of the lions to establish which of the 16 beasts have turned into man-eaters, since attacking humans does not necessarily mean the lions have tasted their flesh. The forest officials do not wish to cause a public outcry and panic situation in the region.

Translocation the solution?

This, however, is only the immediate cause of worry and does not take away from the larger challenge rising from the movement of the lions outside their traditional natural habitats. The increasing attacks on human beings also suggest the shrinking traditional prey base of the king of the jungle outside its fiefdom. And this brings into play, yet again, the need to translocate some of the animals to establish a second free-ranging population of lions. “The one big conservation action that has not been taken so far is to comply with the Supreme Court judgment regarding the translocation of lions,” said wildlife expert Ravi Chellam, executive director of Greenpeace India. “This is an urgent and necessary issue.”

The Gujarat government has made it a prestige issue in the Supreme Court, arguing that it will not part with Gujarat’s lions for Madhya Pradesh or any other state since the increase in its population means the lions are comfortable in their current home.

“Lions have thrived in this region and their population has also increased,” said Chellam. “But the big problem is the protection of the habitat both within the sanctuary as well as in the surrounding landscapes. Fairly rapid change in land-use and the construction of highways and other infrastructural projects, including fences and walls, are all fragmenting, degrading and destroying wildlife habitats.”

The writer is the Editor, Development News Network, Gujarat.