The Gir lion is perhaps aware of every nuance of modern civilization. A metre gauge railway and a State expressway with the blue and white buses of the Gujarat State Transport Corporation cut across the Gir Sanctuary. There is illegal mining and poaching in the coastal districts to which some of the animals have migrated as the prey base goes up in these parts. Maldharis (milkmen) with their sizable cattle population and a village owned by a Negroid-race speaking Gujarati shrink the space for the Asiatic lion.
Inside the forest is a temple with ambitious expansion plans and some 150,000 pilgrims visit the place every year against 60,000 tourists per annum. Some 107 villages with a population of about a lakh border the Gir forest. Stuck in between, the panthera leo persica tries to squeeze out an existence. Going by a Gujarat Government publication, The Gir, given to us by P.P. Raval, Deputy Conservator of Forest, Gir National Park & Sanctuary, the total population of lions as per 2000 census (a census takes place every five years) is put at 327, against 304 in 1995 and 284 in 1990. The male:female:cub ratio estimated in 1990 census was 82:100:67; in1995 it was 94:100:71; and in 2001 it was 92:100:56.
Raval places the infant mortality at 70 per cent and puts it down to either in-breeding and infighting among the beasts. The 2000 census was based on the "beat method" with forest guards spotting the animals but experts are not sure of its efficacy. Dr Y.V. Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India writing in Sanctuary (October 2000) raised the problem of identifying lions.
"Tigers have unique stripe patterns. But lions do not have any striking body patterns and we had to rely on a more subtle identifying character — spots on their whisker rows. There are several rows of whiskers on the upper lip of lions and lionesses. These whisker rows have black spots. The number and position of these spots in the top row relative to the spots in the second row provide a unique fingerprint for each lion. By using the above criteria for individual identification the probability of confusing two lions in a population of 300 lions is one in ten thousand," writes Dr Jhala. But this is a bit risky as one has to watch the beasts from near and Dr Jhala suggests monitoring 8-10 prides in Gir intensively with radio-telemetry. "The current five-year monitoring period is too long to monitor the population of a highly endangered carnivore," he adds.
"One cannot deny in-breeding which could make the beast susceptible to diseases and disaster in the future. Add up a lion population of 327 to a leopard population of 300 and the Gir sanctuary becomes a tight place for two major predators numbering over 500 in a total area of 1882.6 sq km," Raval adds.
The Gir notes: "The increased population has intensified territorial competition and conflict among lions in the Gir. There are 327 lions in the Gir staying in just 1421.13 sq. km. Territorial conflicts are occurring between the lions and only those which are strong enough manage to retain their territories resulting in dispersal of sub-adults from the pride. The displaced lions are moving out of Gir in search of fresh territories. Natural dispersal started from 1990 and one group has occupied territory in Girnar and the other in coastal forests. This indicates that population of lions in the Gir has reached the carrying capacity of park and sanctuary area. At present, there are 4 to 5 satellite lion populations outside Gir in Girnar, Mitiala and coastal forests." The forest authorities are trying to develop these new areas including the Rajula-Porbandar stretch, but illegal and legal mining by cement companies and others are making it difficult. With the lions live the maldharis (milkmen) who are stiff vegetarians. Even if the lions take away their cattle they do not kill the predator. "We love them and will protect them," says 50-year-old Bhara Bheja, a maldhari. It could be because the Government compensates them with cash for every buffalo lost at 50 per cent of the market value. Initially, there were 129 maldhari "nesses (homes)" with 845 families comprising 4,802 people and 16,842 livestock population. After a resettlement scheme, some 360 families now live in the forest with buffalos and cows. They earn Rs 15 per litre on buffalo milk which is carted to Sasan, Junagadh and nearby areas apart from farming. Wheat, rice, mango, cotton and other crops are grown within Gir and at first sight they look well off. Talk to a few and they are determined to stay put, "come what may."
Historical records show lions preying on domestic livestock of maldharis to form nearly 75 per cent of the diet. Latest studies by Dr. R.M. Naik, Dr. Ravi Chellam and A.J.T. Johnsingh in 1993 indicate a shift with domestic livestock as a percentage to diet dropping to 36 per cent. Going by the 2000 census, the prey population of herbivores (ungulates) has gone up to 52,000 from 38,221 in 1995 and 32,792 in 1990.
To complicate matters is a rare Negroid population called the `Siddhi adivasis,' who look as if they have migrated from Africa. They own the Sirwan village with a population of 700 living in 60 to 70 houses. They are all Sunni Muslims and Salim Bhai (22) told us proudly, "Ye, hamara janmabhumi hai (this is our birth place)." There does not seem to be much of recorded history though, Abdul (56) claims they were brought in by the Nawab of Junagadh to lay the metre gauge railway line, which now does not operate during nights and its speed has been cut. For all these people and those in Sasan, Gir forests and its lions are a personal possession and pride.
With tourism providing an important line of livelihood, the emotion is understandable. But should not some of the lions be shifted to the Palpur-Kuno wildlife sanctuary, being developed in Madhya Pradesh. If a poll is taken today the population in Junagadh district (nay, Gujarat) will say a firm no. Raval ducks the question as a policy decision has to be taken by the Gujarat Government. He told this paper the decision to shift a few of the lions was taken at a seminar without consulting the State Government. But for the sake of the lions does it not make sense?
Most experts believe a fresh location can avoid a disaster and with Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat governments being ruled by the BJP, a decision could be easier in the future. There is a breeding centre in Sakkarbaug Zoo to study the Asiatic lion and supply pure Asiatic lion to various zoos in the country and abroad. It has bred 180 lions in captivity. So far 126 lions have gone to zoos in India and abroad. If that be so, should not the Gujarat Government lend a few lions to Kano in Madhya Pradesh? "The public has votes while the lions have none," Raval reminded us at the end of our talk.