December 16, 2010

THE LAST KINGS OF INDIA


THE ASIATIC LION
In May 2010, as the country took cognizance of the sorry plight of its national animal and efforts to save the stripped cat gained momentum, spectacular news emerged from the dry deciduous forests of Gir in Gujarat. While the numbers of the Royal Bengal tiger had plunged to 1411, the population of its feline cousin – the Asiatic lion soared from 359 in 2005 to 411, five years later. In fact, this was the first time since the late nineteenth century that the numbers of the Asia’s apex predator had surged past the 400 mark – infusing renewed vigor in the people involved in this success story and showing the world that persistent and sustained efforts alone can lead to astounding results as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.

Meanwhile, the rising human population, loss of habitat, trophy hunting by Asian royals and their colonial successors and rapid urbanization meant that the large cat was wiped off from most of its former range by the late nineteenth century. By early twentieth century, about 13 individuals remained in the Gir forests of Saurashtra, which primarily lay under the territorial extent of the princely state of Junagadh. The King of the Jungle, popularized in myth as a symbol of indomitable strength and revered around the globe for their ferocity, was once widespread across the Asian continent with its habitat covering much of modern day Arabia, Persia, Asia Minor and India. Surprisingly, nearly two centuries ago, the Asiatic lion would have competed with other big cats like the tiger, leopard and Asiatic cheetah for prey and territory. While the lion-leopard and lion-cheetah conflicts are still recorded in Africa, how the two heavyweights – the lion and the tiger shaped up against each other is today, distant history.

One of the earliest fillips to Lion conservation in Gir came in 1900 when the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, on his visit to Junagadh refrained from shooting the large beast and set an example for others to follow. Instead records from the archives of the erstwhile state show that the royal court was flooded with requests for game hunting, both from British officials and other princely states. When the British administration took control for a brief period in 1911, it enforced tight rules to regulate trophy hunting. Notorious in history textbooks for being one of the only two Indian royals who wanted to merge with Pakistan, in spite of an over whelming Hindu populace, the last Nawab – Mahabathkhanji III was a great animal lover and played a pioneering role in the conservation of the Asiatic Lion. On one occasion, when the neighboring princely states refused to provide similar protection to lions outside the dominion of Junagadh, he threatened to burn down the Gir forests. After the annexation of Junagadh into the Republic of India was complete, the lion was accorded protected status by the government and Gir was declared as a National Park and Wildlife sanctuary in 1965.

Encompassing a total area of 1412 sq km, Gir is today considered to be one of the most important protected areas of Asia. Besides being the last refugee of the Asiatic lion or ‘Babbar Sher’, as they are locally referred to as, the largest dry deciduous forests in Western India are home to a myriad species of flora and fauna. A lesser known fact about Gir is that it is a major breeding centre for the Marsh crocodile under the Indian Crocodile Conservation Project of 1977 and nearly thousand crocs breed here so far have been introduced in waters in and around Gir.

Asiatic lions are similar to their cousins, though they have less swollen tympanic bullae, shorter postorbital constriction, and usually have divided infraorbital foramen. They reach a weight of 160–190 kg for the males and 110–120 kg for the females. The color ranges from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey. Asiatic lions are highly social animals, living in prides. Their lion prides are smaller than those of African lions, with an average of only two females, whereas an African pride has an average of four to six. The males are less social and only associate with the pride when mating or on a large kill. It has been suggested that this may be because their prey animals are smaller than those in Africa, requiring fewer hunters to tackle them. Asiatic lions prey predominantly on sambar, chital, nilgai, chinkara, wild boar, water buffalo and livestock.

Thanks to the efforts of the Forest Department, the Staff, NGOs and activists, the population of the lions in the region has steadily risen to a significant and reassuring number. Unlike earlier times, when pug marks were the basis of the lion census carried once every five years, the authorities have introduced the ‘Block-Direct-Control Method’ since 2005,eliminating any margin of error in the final recordings. In the last census, which involved over a thousand volunteers, the authorities have counted 97 males, 162 females and 152 cubs. A majority of individuals counted were found to be in the sub-adult category, which is a healthy sign for the future of these majestic beasts. The Lion Breeding Program here maintains breeding centers, carries out studies of the behavior of the lions and also practices artificial insemination. One such center, established in the Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh, has successfully bred about 180 lions. Besides, 126 pure  breds have been given to zoos in India and abroad.

Although there is little doubt that the Gir story is a tremendous success and a role model for many similar experiments around the world, the threat to the survival of Asiatic lion persists even today. They have been poisoned by poor farmers who look upon them as ‘livestock lifters’ and wells dug by them for irrigation act as traps, leading to many of them drowning. Reports of poaching have also been recorded, though they have been few and far between. Habitat destruction by the local Maldhari community to meet the demands of firewood and over grazing by their cattle is a serious cause of concern. Today, farmers grow mango, groundnuts and sugarcane adjacent to the Gir Forest, increasing land values and depleting groundwater and putting more pressure on the lion population.

Also the protected area can barely sustain the large numbers of a territorial animal like the lion and the population explosion of the big cat has exceeded the carrying capacity of Gir, forcing many of them to stray away from the protected area, making them especially vulnerable. The latest census has shown that as many as 76 lions are found in the areas adjoining the reserve, known as Greater Gir which comprises of four districts of Amreli, Bhavnagar, Porbander and Junagadh.

Perhaps, the single biggest threat to the survival of Asiatic Lion is that the present population is highly inbred as it is derived from as little as 13 individuals. Many studies have reported that such population could be susceptible to diseases due to a weakening immune system, possibly causing their sperm to be deformed. This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases and causes 70% to 80% of sperm to be deformed — a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity. In fact a severe epidemic of anthrax or rabies, transmitted from the domestic animals of the Maldharis can wipe out the entire lion population.

As such, the battle to save the magnificent lion is far from won. The authorities here have initiated several steps to boost the survival of the animal. Measures like suspension of logging operations in some parts of the reserve, resettlement of Maldharis families and the shifting of their livestock, and the payment of compensation in cases of livestock killing by lions have been initiated. The forest department has also established check posts, introduced a wireless communication network, and deployed vehicles and weapons to control the movement of people and livestock in the protected area. To counter the problem of drowning, suggestions for walls around the wells, as well as, the use of "Drilled Tube wells" have been made. 

Considering the threat of disease and population explosion in Gir, efforts has been made to establish a second independent population of Asiatic lions at the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Although, researchers at the Wildlife Institute of India have certified it as ready to receive its first batch of trans-located lions from the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, the state of Gujarat has been resisting the relocation, since it would make the Gir Sanctuary lose its status as the world's only home of the Asiatic lion. Meanwhile, Kuno officials are toying with the idea of releasing some captive-bred lions into the wild, after training them in hunting and survival techniques.

The story of Gir and the resurgence in the population of the Asiatic lions is the result of continued efforts to save the species. The Nawab of Junagadh, the Gujarat government and the people of the state, all deserve their share of accolades and are an integral part of this great success. With the application of scientific knowledge, patience and hard work, the same experiment can be replicated with any other animal anywhere in the country. If we have been able to save the Asiatic Lion from the brink of extinction, we surely have the potential to do the same with the tiger, the Gangetic dolphin and other critically endangered species.

While its primary nemesis, the Princes and the British have long disappeared into the oblivion, the Asiatic lion, besides ruling his tiny yet significant kingdom in Saurashtra, continues to captivate the hearts and minds of the Indians. Though the era of the Rajas and Maharajas is long over, the lion still occupies a preeminent position in the Indian Republic as it is one of the few animals that have made it to the National Emblem. The four lions standing back to back, symbolizing power, courage, pride and confidence have become the face of the country to rest of the world. The King of the Jungle, the last remaining scion of royalty in modern India, is roaring and roaring with pride; for it knows that it future is safe in the hands of its subject.



SOURCES


(1) Wikipedia – Asiatic Lion (Link)

(2) Environment News Service (Link)

(3) Google Books - Gir Forest and the Saga of Asiatic Lion by Sudipta Mitra (Link)