The recent poaching of six lions for claws in the Gir forest has led to calls for better policing and protection. The immediate response of both the Union and the Gujarat state governments has been on expected lines.
So far, so good. But what next' To learn better how to protect and safeguard the lion, it is necessary to ask why it is a dim memory across so much of its historic range.
Just two centuries ago, the species had a range across much of north and central India. It is not widely known that later Mughal rulers like Shah Alam II hunted lions on elephant-back in the region now comprising Haryana. In the aftermath of the Great Rebellion of 1857, a British officer, George Acland Smith, shot as many as 300. Of these, over 50 were shot within a day’s horse ride out of the old imperial capital of Delhi.
By the turn of the earlier century, the prides that had roamed the grasslands and the scrub jungles of the subcontinent for millennia had vanished. Some were shot by trophy-hunters equipped with better, long-range rifles. Others were poisoned by their owners, whose antagonism was further fuelled by the rich bounties offered for the great beasts by the new British rulers. The princes and maharajahs did their share of polishing off what was left. Even before much of its dry grassland home in the plains was converted to cultivation, the big cat had vanished.
The Gir hills of the Kathiawar peninsula were one place where a few survived. They survived, but only just. From the late 19th century, a most unusual bond grew up between the Babi Pathan dynasty that ruled over Junagadh and the lions of the Gir forest. Efforts to protect them from the hunter’s bullet and the poison of the irate cattle-owner were unusual for a time when all carnivores were seen by rulers (British or princely) as evil incarnate.
But about 1900, such protection is exactly what the lions got. A few were still shot, but only large males with big manes. The lionesses and cubs, and most of their male kin, were under formal princely protection. When Ranji, the famous prince of Nawanagar, shot a lioness in an adjacent range outside the territory of Junagadh, he came under widespread criticism.
The engaging story is well told in a recent work by Divyabhanusinh. The Story of Asia’s Lions, as he calls it, is not merely a tale from ages past. On not one but two occasions, the species had a brush with the spirits. The first was at the time of independence, when the nawab fled to Pakistan. The aarzi hukumat or people’s government under Samaldas Gandhi (a nephew of the Mahatma) had other, more pressing tasks. But intervention by Jawaharlal Nehru, in February 1948, got the government to act. Pickets were put up, and the protection against trigger-happy hunters remained in place. The lions had won a lease of life.
Yet, Gir was more than a forest of the lions, the only ones left in the wild in all of Asia. There was a slow-burning conflict with the buffalo herding maldharis, a people who have long made the Gir their home. Cultivation nibbled away the valley floors, while deer and wild boar became increasingly rare. Predation on cattle led to intense conflicts with people.
It was under president’s rule in 1974 that a Gir lion project got under way. It is largely due to the protection of the prey, predator and the habitat that the lion and the forest staged a remarkable recovery. Research by scholars like Ravi Chellam was to show later, and decisively, how the lions turned from preying on buffaloes to deer as the latter grew in number.
While accepting encomiums for the remarkable success story, the government and the people of Gujarat have been deeply conscious of how special their prides are. Nowhere else in Asia are there lions in the wild. In the pre-independence period, the rulers of Junagadh and a few adjoining states took great pride and joy in “their” lions. Already by the time Nehru sent his urgent telegram to the local administration, Gujaratis in cities like Ahmedabad were seeing the lion as a distinctive symbol of their region. About a quarter century later, it was also declared the state animal of Gujarat.
Therein lies the nub of today’s problem. The name for the lion in India is not the Asian lion (as elsewhere in the world) or the Indian lion (as often described before 1972, when it was displaced by the tiger as the national animal). It is known simply as the Gir lion.
The problem is that the very regional pride that has helped save the animals has now become a hindrance to their future. Nowhere is this as clear as in the near total opposition to relocating a small number of lions to a second home in central India’s Kuno wildlife sanctuary.
One of Narendra Modi’s predecessors, Shankersinh Vagehla, once told a journalist that he would not even part with a single lion cub, let alone a lion. Since then, attitudes have hardened. The Gujarat government is considering the re-introduction of lions in the Barda hills in the Saurashtra peninsula. It is, however, not willing to consider parting with a few lions for a second home outside the state.
Regionalism, once a valued ally, can also be immune to reason. The lions of Gir are vulnerable to epidemics like tick fever that resulted in the death of over a thousand lions in Tanzania’s famous Serengeti in the early Nineties.
Neither a chief ministerial visit, as Narendra Modi’s within days of the recent poaching incidents, nor the newly established Wild- life Crime Cell will be of much help were a disease to strike the lions.
If anything, Gujarat could take a leaf out of the pages of another state known for its regional nationalism: Assam. A small number of rhinos translocated to Dudwa in Uttar Pradesh helped repopulate a part of their range.
The lions of Gir do not just face threats from poachers. Their habitat needs protection. The Vanishing Herds Foundation, funded by expatriate Gujaratis has done commendable work in covering wells that often become death traps. The Gir Wildlife Club has mobilized youngsters along the rim of the forest to become nature-lovers. Yet, the easing of restrictions on vehicle entry to pilgrimage sites in the forest, like the famous Kankai Mata temple, disturb the habitat.
Above all, the saga of the Gir lions raises a question that lies at the very heart of conservation. Protection of rare fauna or landscapes, the lions of Gir or the rhinos of Assam, has often gained from regionalism. There are examples of this in other nation-states. The gorillas of Rwanda, for instance, were safe even in the fratricidal civil war of the mid-Nineties.
Yet, that very sense of regional pride can be the cause of a fall. In the case of the last of Asia’s lions, there is little doubt that a second home will ensure their survival. Gir will always be their first home. It need not be their only one.
The last century saw not one but two remarkable conservation success stories with the lions. It is time to launch a new venture, one that gives them not just a second habitat but also the guarantee of survival.