Times of India, July 20th 2001
AHMEDABAD: The Asiatic Lion is doing fine in its only home in the wild - the Gir forest - located on the western tip of the country with the latest count putting their number at 315 or 320 - up from 304 in the last census carried out six years back.
The final results are still being tabulated but it is felt that projected population growth has remained on course and wild life experts are heaving a sigh of relief over the figure as they experimented with a new method of census earlier this week.
For the first time the census of the Lion was conducted on beat system involving 19 range, 77 rounds and 600 officers in 206 beats who completed the pain-staking exercise on Thursday. Earlier census were conducted by offering prey to the animal but it invited a lot of criticism and opposition in the media.
In 1930, the population of the lion had gone down to only 20 due to higher incidents of poaching by the erstwhile rulers and the British Officers. Alarmed by this, the former Nawab of Junagadh and Lord Curzon had initiated protective measures to save the animals from extinction. They had banned the poaching or hunting of the lion with the result, in the next decade its number had reached 55. In 1990, as per the census, the population had risen to 280 and subsequently in 1995 its number stood at 304.
The Gir forest, located in Junagadh district of the Saurashtra region was declared as sanctuary in 1972. The sanctuary is spread over in 1153.4 sq km, while the National park covers the area of 257.8 sq.m. The census this week was conducted by the Gir East division of Amreli district. As many as 600 enumerators and 25 experts, assisted by range forest officers, round foresters and beat guards were deployed at various water points for conducting the census. They prepared meticulous report based on minute observation and description of the lion, lioness and cubs. They noted down identification marks and also collected pug marks of the animal.
A special register has been maintained for the purpose. Based on these reports, a final specific number of the population of the lion will be arrived at, a spokesperson for the state forest department said.
However, according to forest officials, several prides of lions have moved out of the Gir national park and sanctuary through forest corridors, they have found homes in Girnar near Junagarh, Sutrapada and Muldwarika on the sea coast and up to Mithiala in Bhavnagar. These satellite populations are not in the protected forests.
The growing lion population and its expansion into new areas has put forth the vital question which foresters have been asking for some years now - Is Gir saturated with lions? The answer, according to senior forest officials, can't really be given when the forest continues to be inhabited by a large number of human beings and their cattle - 4,000 and 16,000 respectively. "It is not yet a question of overcrowding by lions, it is still a question of not giving the lions enough space in Gir ", says a forest official.
The growth in the lion population in Gir has come despite the fact that every year one or two lions are killed because of territorial problems. Besides, the Visavadar-Talala railway line, which passed through 14 kilometres of park territory, claims one or two lions every year. The train drivers have been told to keep a watch on the track and not to drive over 20 kilometres per hour, but then these instructions are seldom followed, says foresters.
In view of the booming population of lions in Gir and the pressure on forest land there, there was a plan to give the lions a new home in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. However, this has run into trouble with the state's political leadership and forest department refusing to give away lions which, they consider, were a heritage bestowed by nature only on Gujarat. And even while the Wild Life Institute of Dehradun with the help of the Madhya Pradesh government is trying to develop a new habitat for lions at Palpur Kuno near Gwalior to translocate a family of lions two years from now, Gujarat has made it clear that the Asiatic Lions were its exclusive preserve.
The forest department has argued that if a new home has to be developed for the lions it could be at Barda where the lions themselves were finding the habitat most suitable and had made their home there. It has to be a natural spread, rather than an artificial one", says a Gujarat official.