Every year, the forest department of Gujarat conducts a census of herbivores in Gir forest and other protected areas, the last abode in the world of Asiatic lions.
The census covers wild ungulates like spotted deer, blue bulls (nilgais), sambars, Indian gazelles (chinkaras), four-horned antelopes (choshinga) and wild boars. Additionally, the forest department also counts Indian langurs as well as peafowl.
Wild ungulates and langurs are the main prey of Asiatic lions, the endangered big cat species whose only wild population in the world is surviving in 22,000 square kilometre area, known as greater Gir area and spread across Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts in Saurashtra region of Gujarat.
Census of herbivores at Gir: Why in summer?
During summer, foliage is reduced to its minimum levels in dry and deciduous tropical forests like Gir. Such a forest affords the best visibility and by extension, opportunities to spot maximum number of wild animals in the forest.
During this time of the year, availability of surface water in Gir goes down significantly. Consequently, wild animals concentrate around water points, more than 450 of them artificial, and filled up by the forest department. These water points are mainly located along forest tracks and thus makes it easy for forest staff to access areas with a higher concentration of wild animals.
Forest department divides the Gir forest in generally 19 routes and forest divisions for the purpose of the census. Teams transact routes thrice — morning, afternoon and evening, and mainly remain dependent on direct sighting of animals. The field trips are conducted for two days for collecting sample data. Results are announced after analysing data.
Why is census of herbivores in Gir forest important?
A count of ungulates gives the forest department an idea of the availability of prey-base for the top predator lions as well as other predators like leopards, hyenas, wolves etc. Such a count helps the forest department to notice any changes in the food availability for lions and also indicates the health of the forest in general and of fauna in particular.
A strong base of ungulates can reduce depredation of livestock by lions within Gir forest as well as on the periphery of the forest and thus can reduce the man-animal conflict. Incidentally, Gujarat government had argued against translocation of Asiatic lions to Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh stating prey-base in that sanctuary needed to be studied more rigorously.
Don’t miss from Explained: How the Apache attack helicopter will augment IAF’s capabilities
What has been the herbivore population trend in recent years?
Since 1974, the population of herbivorous in Gir forest has been on the rise. In 2013, the population of ungulates was estimated to be 1,26,893 or 76.49 animals per square kilometres. That translates to 8000 kg of biomass available to carnivorous, very close to the levels in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The population of ungulates was 1,07,172 in 2010. Incidentally, lion census is due in May next year.