Friday, May 29, 2015
The largest five-yearly lion census, held between May 2 and 5 in Gujarat, saw the numbers of the big cat increase by a whopping 27 per cent (also the highest growth in all previous censuses) from 411 lions counted in the 2010 census. Asiatic lions once roamed from Palestine to Palamau, but by the 20th century, their numbers were restricted to the Gir region in northern Gujarat. Even within the region, the lion courted extinction till a few decades ago, with numbers dropping to a paltry 50. Now, according to the latest census, Gujarat is home to 523 lions.
In 1880, British officer Colonel James Watson is said to have undertaken the first lion census in Gir, reporting the presence of only 12 lions in the region. Over the next few decades, the then state of Junagadh undertook intermittent lion censuses. It was only after the formation of the Gir sanctuary in 1965 that the first official lion census was held.
The 2015 lion census was the 14th exercise on the trot. But it was unique on many counts. For the first time, the census covered nearly 22,000 sq km, more than twice the area covered in 2010. Camera traps were also used for the first time. The exercise saw the participation of 250 volunteers, including representatives from NGOs, teachers and doctors. A 2,500-strong brigade of forest and security officials and enumerators ensured that the exercise went off smoothly. Many volunteers took a break from their professional engagements to take part in the census.
For four days, enumerators trekked the dry deciduous forests of Gir tracking the Asiatic Lion, placing themselves at the forest’s waterholes. Most river beds had dried up, except for River Hiran, where water still flows. The method used for counting was Total Block Counting method, which is based on direct sightings of the animal.
Armed with GPS, GIS instruments and night-vision cameras, teams of enumerators sat on watch for the animals to come by. They wrote down specific characteristics of the animal on a sheet of paper printed with the sketch of a lion’s face and body. After each sighting, enumerators noted down unique identification marks on the lions — colour of hair and eyes, belly folds, scars, or tufted ends of tails. For instance, lion ‘Kaan-kata’ was identified by the cut on its ear, lion ‘Langdo’ had a distinctive limp and lion ‘Baando’ didn’t have a proper long tail.
The teams then marked the presence of the lion on physical maps and tagged the location on electronic maps. In several instances, trackers took help from the Maldhari tribe (local cattle-herders). “We were paid a daily wage to accompany them and help locate the lions. We have lived here for decades, we know the beast and its movements better than the forest guards,” says a Maldhari.
Preparations for the exercise began nine months prior and foresters started tracking movements of the lions a week before the actual census. For the enumerators, the census was a round-the-clock job. “They had to be at the spots throughout the process. They came with tiffins and water bottles. You never know when the animal will come to a waterhole,” says forester DP Dave at Sasan-Gir.
The kingdom expands
In India, historical records reveal that till a few hundred years ago, the lion roamed in areas north of the Narmada — what are now the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Gradually, the populations migrated towards Gujarat and concentrated around Gir.
The species is now restricted to 1,882.6 sq km of the Gir forest area in Saurashtra. Nearly 75 per cent of the area, 1,421 sq km has been declared as Protected Area, which comprises 258.7 sq km of the national park and 1153.4 sq km of the sanctuary area. An additional 470.5 sq km of buffer zone serves as reserve forest. This means that lion presence has increased by more than 10 times the Protected Area.
As per the forest department’s estimate, a pride (five to eight lions) requires roughly around 40-50 sq km of territory. The increase in big cat population has resulted in a shrinking of the habitat, which explains why the lions have begun to move out of the forest areas. The census reveals that the big cats have expanded their territory to the coastal areas of Savar-Kundla, Amreli, Palitana, Mitiana, Pania and Babra Vidi. The lion footprint has spread to eight of the 11 districts of Saurashtra.
“Lions are moving out of the forest area in search of prey. Even if the lion has visited a place once, it has to be included as a lion-sighting area,” says Dr Ansuman Sharma, deputy conservator of forests, Gir (East). In the 2010 census, the exercise covered 41 villages, while this time the number has gone up to 76. GA Patel, former member of the National Wildlife Board and ex-chief wildlife warden, adds that “the increase in population has led to infighting among the males. The weaker ones are leaving the jungle.” Out of 523 lions, Gir is home to only 302 of them.
In India, the lion’s share of conservation of wildlife species is dedicated to protecting the tiger. While the Central government has made efforts by providing additional financial support over the years, the fact remains that ‘Project Tiger’ is top priority. “Under ‘Project Tiger’, the government has spent ₹488.58 crore. For elephants, they have spent ₹48.71 crore. The centre has also released a total of ₹206.09 crore under the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats in the last three years,” says Rajya Sabha member Parimal Nathwani, who introduced the pitch for lion as the national animal. “It is high time that the centre shifts its attention to the conservation of the Asiatic lion.” The status of the national animal has also seen its share of politics. Until 1972, the lion was a national symbol when the Indira Gandhi government launched ‘Project Tiger’ and the tiger unseated the lion. Since last year, however, the Modi government has been pushing for the lion’s return.
As the lion habitat spreads, the challenges that lie ahead for conservationists are the impending human-lion conflict in non-forest areas and the maintenance of a diverse gene pool. “The forest department has no infrastructure to protect the animal. There are no studies yet on lion behaviour outside the forest area,” says Patel, adding that an open savannah-type protected plains is an option for the lions’ expanded territory.
Members of the 8,400-strong Maldhari tribe say that the State government is not doing enough to protect lion cubs. “Male cubs are getting killed by bigger males. Some die on railway tracks. A strict vigil is needed to safeguard them,” says a young Maldhari. Last month, three cubs were run over by a goods train on the railway line between Pipavav port and Liliya taluka, which has a lion settlement.
With the latest census figures, plans are afoot to source more data on lion territories, their vulnerability to poaching and areas of conflict with the locals. “We are planning to have an Asiatic Lion Landscape Scheme aimed at habitat improvement and conflict management. Also, we are planning to form a task force to tackle issues related to lions and spread awareness for lion conservation,” says PK Taneja, additional chief secretary, forest and environment department.
While the State government has laid out ambitious plans to protect the lion, it has to increase its engagement with the Maldhari tribe. “It is their co-existence with lions that has benefited in conserving the endangered species. We must congratulate them for taking care of the lion,” Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel said while announcing the census estimates.