A Lion in My Backyard

The Supreme Court’s directive to translocate some Asiatic lions from Gir in Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh has evoked strong emotions in Maldharis,a nomadic tribe which has coexisted peacefully with the animal for ages

Written by Gopal Kateshiya | New Delhi | Published:June 23, 2013 10:32 pm

The Supreme Court’s directive to translocate some Asiatic lions from Gir in Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh has evoked strong emotions in Maldharis,a nomadic tribe which has coexisted peacefully with the animal for ages

When the Supreme Court ordered a translocation of Asiatic lions from their natural habitat of Gir to the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh in April this year,Sasan Gir,a small village on the western periphery of Gir forest in Gujarat,known for lion safaris,was dismayed. The translocation,residents fear,will affect their tourism-based livelihood. Deep inside this part of the forest,there are others who are unhappy as well: the Maldharis (a pastoral tribe) face a dilemma — how to let the jungle king,who has been a part of their family for ages,be moved to an unknown territory.

There are 44 settlements of Maldharis inside the Gir forest,locally called nesses spread across 1,412 sq km of the Gir National Park in the Junagadh and Amreli districts. These nesses are mostly located on the forest peripheries and are home to 308 Maldhari families that eke out their living by cattle rearing and have limited contact with the outside world. Staunch vegetarians,these Maldharis are members of Charan,Rabari and Bharvad communities and are traditionally cattle breeders. They have also become an integral part of the Gir ecosystem. Forest officers say the population of their cattle is estimated to be around 6,000. The lion has been an inseparable part of the tribe’s geo-cultural consciousness for ages and they are loathe to let the big cats go elsewhere. The affection seems to stem from a concern for the long-term survival and preservation of the species,exactly the ground on which the apex court has ordered the provision of a second natural habitat.

Maldharis have been living within the Gir forest for centuries. However,after 258.71 sq km area of the forest was declared a national park in 1974,many were evacuated from the forest. As many as 874 families living in the buffer zone were rehabilitated between 1974 and 1987. As part of the rehabilitation package,the families were given agricultural land. But subsequent research and surveys concluded that 70 per cent of the families had lost their traditional profession of cattle breeding. Evacuation problems arose again in 2007 when the forest department claimed that some Maldhari families did not have the right to live within the forest and the issue reached the court.

A drive through the hilly terrains of Ratanguna and Pilipat areas takes us to Kadeli ness,a Maldhari settlement,10 km south of Sasan inside the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. Naran Asaniya (85) has lived here all his life. “We have always lived with the sinh (lion). He preys on our cattle sometimes. But then,he is the king of the jungle and I have no complaints against him. He has always been around,like our buffaloes and cows. I would not like him to go anywhere else,” Asaniya says. The octogenarian recalls a lion raiding his cattle enclosure and killing a buffalo four years ago. “But this is the way life is. I have never thrown even a pebble at him,nor has his behaviour ever made me angry,” he says breaking into a guffaw.

Gogan Kodiyatar (32) of Gangajalia ness is out in Ded Vidi area of the forest to graze his 50 buffaloes early in the morning. He heard of the translocation order days ago,but does not know where the lions are to be taken. He shakes his head in disapproval. “E no maja ave (This would not be good at all)! We have been living together for years and nobody has faced any problem ever. I don’t know why somebody has to be taken out of his home and put in an unknown territory,” Kodiyatar,who has no formal education and has never heard of Madhya Pradesh,says. Kodiyatar’s teenaged nephew Bagho is also perplexed. “I don’t know why they want to do this. It is fun to live with the lions,” he says adding he had sighted the big cat four days ago. Another Maldhari,Dhanoya,says,“Being the king of the jungle,lions prevent strangers from entering the forest and thus protect us and our cattle.”

Meanwhile,Maldharis with more exposure seem to have resigned to the will of the state government. “There could be a threat to the lions in Madhya Pradesh. Let’s not forget that they (the poachers who were caught in 2007 in Gir were from MP) had come all the way to poach. But then,it is up to the government to decide,” Soma Dhanoya,a resident of Kasia ness near Visavadar,says.

The big cats,which have extended their home range to over 80 km of wastelands,gauchars (pastoral land) and revenue areas of Amreli and Bhavnagar districts under the Protected Area of Greater Gir in the east,have been received well by the locals. The Maldharis have also played a vital role in the conservation efforts of state forest department. “They are our best informers. Since they constantly move in the forest,many a time they are the first to inform us in case there is something wrong with a lion.They are wonderfully co-operative,” Sandeep Kumar,deputy conservator of forest (wildlife) at Sasan,says. The harmony between lions and Maldharis is established by the fact that there is no known case of a lion attacking a Maldhari or vice versa in decades now,he adds.

The state government put forward this image of harmonious coexistence to defend its case of not parting with the big cats. But the Supreme Court held this view as anthropocentric,and observed that an ecocentric approach should take precedence “in the species’ best interest standard” which,in this case,was to provide the lions with a second natural habitat. The state government has reportedly argued in its review petition that local authorities and communities,including Maldharis,were not consulted before delivering the verdict in favour of translocation. This,it says,was necessary according to the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Once found throughout many of the present-day states of India and as far away as Iran in southwest Asia,lions were reduced to only a small population in Gir forest in the late 19th century due to rampant hunting and loss of habitat. But the nawabs,the rulers of erstwhile Junagadh state,took timely measures to conserve the species. Even then,the number of lions in the wild was a precarious few dozens till the mid 20th century. After Independence,however,the Gujarat forest department put in place an effective protection and conservation regime and succeeded in bringing the number of the big cats to 411 by 2010.

Greater Gir is now home to six meta populations of the big cats. These populations have settled in Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary,Girnar Sanctuary,Mitiyala Sanctuary,Paniya Sanctuary,coastal areas of Junagadh,Amreli Porbandar and Bhavnagar and a few talukas of Amreli and Bhavnagar. But these lions continue to exist as a single sub-population. On the other hand,wildlife experts and conservationists have long advocated the need to distribute separate populations of the species over a larger geographical area to propagate genetic diversity and a better chance of survival in case of events like epidemics or forest fires.

While ensuring that the lions could reclaim their habitat,the department arguably never gave a serious thought to the idea of developing another population of the species within the state. In its defence,the forest department argues that lions are genetically robust and face no danger from epidemics since inbreeding is not common. “Their sperm count is very high and its longevity is also excellent. Additionally,a male lion does not mate with its mother,sister cubs or its own daughter. So,genetically they are very healthy,” says Dr Sandeep Kumar,deputy conservator of forest (wildlife division) at Sasan. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict,however,the department is mooting the idea of declaring these meta populations as individual ones and turning their habitats in protected areas into sanctuaries.

However,Faiyaz Khudsar of Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India (BCTI) who had filed the petition in the Supreme Court,says facts and scientific evidence are crucial in taking a decision. He says larger habitats are crucial for top predators. “There is no doubt Gujarat has done a wonderful job in conserving the Asiatic lions,but they need to live long and for that they need a second home geographically isolated (from Gir). We cannot afford to keep 100 eggs in a single basket,” says Khudsar.

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