As many as 413 Asiatic lions died in the past five years in Gujarat’s Gir forest and other protected areas, the last abode of the endangered big cats in the world. Over 35 per cent of deaths were due to “illness”, the Gujarat Assembly was told.
Even as the forest department is trying to radio-collar lions to prevent deaths caused by conflict with human habitation, 70-odd lions died after they either fell into wells built without parapet walls, were run over by trains or were electrocuted on farm fences.
Of the 413 lions that perished between 2013 and 2018, 132 were females, 119 males and 154 cubs. The highest number of deaths, 98, was recorded in 2016-17, government data tabled on Tuesday as a written reply to an unstarred question posed by Congress MLA from Talala, Bhag-abhai Barad, showed. Incidentally, Barad was disqualified as an MLA in March this year after a trial court convicted him in a 24-year-old illegal mining case.
Of 413 lion deaths during the five-year period, 35 per cent or 146 adult lions, and 45 per cent, or 69 of 154 cubs, also died of illnesses. While the number of deaths among cubs seem unusually high, forest officers denied it, saying survival rates among cubs are generally low.
In September last year, 23 lions died within just two weeks in Dalkhaniya range of Gir (east) forest division in Amreli district. Laboratory tests confirmed that 18 of them died after contracting the deadly canine distemper virus (CDV) and bacterial infections such as Babesiosis and Gram-negative Bacilli. Consequently, the forest department rescued 33 lions and shifted them to animal care centres, and 21 tested positive for CDV. All 33 big cats were administered the CDV vaccine, and though they have been reportedly cured, they are still in captivity. The toll climbed even higher by October-end last year. However, these figures pertaining to the year 2018-19 are not part of the tabled data.
Apart from disease, 44 lions also died of old age, and 153 lions died due to unspecified “other natural reasons” as well.
Additionally, 70-odd lions died due to unnatural causes such as falling into open wells, being run over by trains or being electrocuted on agricultural farms. Of them, 20 big cats died after falling into wells, and four were run over by trains. In 46 deaths, the cause was recorded as “other unnatural reasons,” the reply stated.
In June 2015, as many as 11 Asiatic lions died in flash floods in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts.
Dushyant Vasavada, Chief Conservator of Forests of the Junagadh Wildlife Circle, which has jurisdiction over much of the lion landscape that comprises Gir forest and other protected areas spread across Junagadh, Amreli, Gir Somnath and Bhavnagar districts in Saurashtra region of the state, told The Indian Express that even death due to old age can be attributed to various factors. “You will have to study each and every reason, such as age, sex etc before you come to a conclusion,” he said. He claimed that the number of deaths during the period was normal. “Every year, around 90 lion deaths are recorded. At this rate, 413 in five years is not too high,” he said.
According to a 2015 census, there are just 523 Asiatic lions in Gujarat, and the species is categorised as endangered by The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global authority on the status of the natural world.
Conservation efforts have ensured a steady growth in the population in the past four decades. In order to protect lions and to study their movement patterns and habitat preferences, the forest department has begun radio-collaring them.
Of the population of 523 lions, an estimated 167, or 32 per cent, live outside protected forest areas. This has caused a rapid rise in conflict with humans. Data tabled in the state legislature on Tuesday showed that over 50 humans have been killed and 436 injured in attacks by either lions or leopards in Gir-Somnath, Junagadh and Amreli, between December 2013 to November 2018.
Similarly, over 18,900 cattle have been killed by both lions and leopards in these three districts in the past five years. Between October 2013 to September 2018, the highest number of cattle deaths were reported from Gir Somnath (7,371), Junagadh (7,206) and Amreli (4,349).