It was the monsoon of 2018 when trackers in Gujarat’s Gir National Park, known to be home to over 500 Asiatic lions, found many of its famed residents missing. Soon after, it was found that 23 members from a pride of 26 were dead, and the cause was a highly contagious disease called Canine Distemper Virus (CDV). The virus had first made news in the ’90s, when an epidemic killed nearly thousand lions in Serengeti, Africa. But in India, there hadn’t been any cases till 2018, when it surfaced in the Sarasiya Vidi region of the eastern Gir forest. However, the forest guards rescued over 33 lions, who were then quarantined, vaccinated and kept under observation. Scientists had also revealed another reason for the deaths: babesiosis, a disease caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells. In 2019, film producer Upma Bhatnagar and her team made a trip to the park to tell this story in a 10-part documentary series titled The Lion Kingdom. Airing on Animal Planet this week, it has well-known veterinary surgeon Steve Leonard as the series host.
“It was a serious issue not only in Gir, but in India’s conservation history. The existence of an entire species — Asiatic lions — that does not exist anywhere else in the world was at stake. When scientists and conservationists expressed their fears that the species may not come out of this crisis, I was really worried. I enjoy a special bond with the land, its people and its majestic animals. I wanted to get into the bottom of the issue, meet people to know how they fought it, the challenges they faced and how they are managing to keep the lions alive,” says London-based Bhatnagar, who had made another series, Gir — The Lion Queens of India in 2015, which focused on the women foresters who do animal rescue in the park. As a journalist-turned-filmmaker, her other works include Decoding the Man-Eaters of Sundarbans, Tales from Rhino Land, Counting Tigers, and Snake Squad.
In The Lion Kingdom, we see how the forest department worked round the clock to save the species while battling heavy rains and floods. We also see how the veterinary hospital in Gir functions — it is one of the only national parks in India to have a full-fledged hospital for animals. The documentary has footage from 2018 that the forest department shot where we can see the ailing lions too. An added challenge that the crew faced this time in Gir was filming in the monsoons. “The parks are closed to outsiders in the monsoon, but because the outbreak had happened at that time, we wanted to film it then. Since we were filming with 4K equipment and the region was seeing an unprecedented amount of rain, it was quite difficult,” says Bhatnagar.
But certain moments in the jungle made up for it, like when the forest guards reunited two leopard cubs with their mother. “After treating the three of them separately, they took them into the forest. It was pouring, but they couldn’t bring them back as the mother was already tranquilised. It was an unforgettable experience to see them work with such love and care, how they built a little home with trees and branches for those cubs,” she says. They witnessed a heartbreaking story too. “We were following a pride of lions and the lion was under threat from another lion. When the latter takes over, he kills the cubs too. It was heartbreaking to see that in the fight two new-born cubs die. All of us, including the guards, were so sad and shocked, as they invest a lot of time trying to protect them, but can’t do anything about it,” she says.
Bhatnagar’s interest in lions piqued as she wanted to break a wildlife stereotype that Westerners have about India. “Few people in the UK and US know that India has lions. They associate lions with Africa, and think of India as the tiger country. So, it’s interesting to tell the world that India is the only place to have lions outside of Africa,” she says.
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