About an hour before daybreak, cattle herder Bhikha Batada visits the enclosure of his 10 buffaloes and 25 cows near the water tank in Sarasiya, a village 7 km from Dhari in Amreli district on Dhari-Tulsishyam road in Gujarat. But the sight of a partially-eaten dead calf in front of the gate stops him in his tracks. Bhiku Makwana, a driver who lives across the road, walks up to him. “She was killed by Chaplo (the name given by locals to a lion living in the forest nearby) at around 3.45 am. He enjoyed his meal for about two hours and left just 30 minutes ago,” Makwana tells the 70-something Batada. “If only I had come to check my enclosure early this morning,” Batada rues.
The cattle herder pulls aside his enclosure’s gate — a dry branch of a thorny tree locally called gando baval (Prosopis juliflora). His cows and buffaloes stream out, some sniff the dead heifer before making their way out. “Just four days ago, three lionesses preyed on a cow on the other side of the road. These days, hardly anybody approaches the forest department for compensation,” says Batada, before catching up with his herd.
Sarasiya village is right on the edge of Sarasiya Vidi — a 25 sq km forest patch, part of Dalkhaniya range in Gir (east) division forest — from where 23 Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) were reported dead between September 12 and 29. Laboratory tests of samples drawn from the dead lions have confirmed that canine distemper virus (CDV) was present in four of them — the same virus which had killed around 1,000 lions in Tanzania in Africa in the 1990s. The CDV primarily affects dogs, besides wild animals, including lions, wolves, foxes, and, can spread through direct contact of saliva, etc., and also through aerosols. Samples of 10 other lions have tested positive for Babesiosis, a bacterial disease spread by tick, a parasite common among cattle and buffaloes. Four other samples have returned positive for Gram-negative bacilli, another bacteria which affects cattle primarily and can transmit to other species. Veterinarians say that bacteria infect lions after CDV attacks the immune, respiratory and nervous systems of the carnivores.
This is first time since the poaching of eight lions in 2007 and deaths of 11 lions in flash floods in Amreli in 2015 that multiple lions have died unnatural deaths in such a short period. In fact, these are the first multiple recorded deaths in Gir forest owing to a disease. The confirmation of the deadly viral and bacterial infections among the Asiatic lions have set alarm bells ringing in Gujarat’s forest department. Seven carcasses — including three injured and dead owing to infighting — were found in Sarasiya Vidi last month. Four other ill lions were shifted to rescue centres but died. After this, the forest department scoured the landscape, spread over 3,000 sq km, and screened each of the 600 lions they came across. During the drive, one ill lioness died before she could be given medical treatment. Another lion cub died at the rescue centre, taking the toll to 13 by September 24. The forest department rescued the remaining 13 from Sarasiya Vidi and shifted them to Jasadhar Rescue Centre, but 10 of them died by September 29.
After Pune’s National Institute of Virology (NIV) confirmed the presence of CDV in four dead lions by the end of September, the forest department rescued 31 lions from Semardi area, adjoining Sarasiya Vidi, and two from the neighbouring Paniya range and kept them in isolation and under observation at Jamwala Rescue Centre in Gir (west) forest and at Babarkot Rescue Centre in Amreli social forestry division. While forest officers maintain that blood reports of these 33 lions are normal, they have been given dozes of CDV vaccine imported from the US.
“For the first time we did such tests to detect viral and bacterial infections, which caused the deaths of 17 lions,” says Dushyant Vasavada, chief conservator of the forests of Junagadh wildlife circle.
The forest department has also sought help from Delhi Zoo and experts from Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly, and Safari Park, Etawah in Uttar Pradesh. Samples of lions’ blood, tissue, swabs, etc., have been sent for tests to NIV, IVRI, College of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry of Junagadh Agricultural University and Regional Forensic Science Laboratory in Junagadh. Meanwhile, NIV has confirmed that samples of 21 out of 27 lions have tested positive for CDV.
While all efforts are being made to secure the 33 lions under observation, staff of forest and animal husbandry departments are on an extensive drive to vaccinate cattle, buffaloes, goats, sheep, and dogs in 20 villages, including Sarasiya. Nilpesh Savaliya, drive coordinator and assistant director in charge of animal husbandry in Amreli, says 6,348 cattle and 6,228 buffaloes have been vaccinated since September 23 with foot-and-mouth-disease vaccine, and goats and sheep have been administered vaccines giving protection against Peste-des-petits-ruminants virus (PPRV). Currently, they are vaccinating street dogs and pets against CDV and rabies.
Gir forest and other protected areas around it — Pania Wildlife Sanctuary, Mitiyala Wildlife Sanctuary, Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary, Amreli social forestry division and Bhavnagar — is the last abode of the Asiatic lion. Once spread across many parts of Asia, Asiatic lions were restricted to Gir forest by the beginning of the 20th century. Rampant hunting over previous centuries had reduced their population to just a few dozen surviving in Gir. But Rasulkhanji Babi, then nawab of the erstwhile state of Junagadh, put a ban on the hunting of the big cats and helped recover their population from the brink of extinction. Gir forest was declared a sanctuary in 1965. Subsequently, in 1975, 258.71 sq. km of the Gir sanctuary was declared a National Park where strict wildlife and forest laws were put in place. Today, lions have extended their territory beyond the Gir forest and are ranging other protected areas spread across Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts in Saurashtra region.
The lion population has seen a steady growth over the last four decades. International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global body working for conservation of the natural world, had categorised Asiatic lions as a critically endangered species in 2000 when the population of the big cat was around 300 as per the 1995 population estimation exercise. But, as the population of the carnivore improved to 359 individuals by the year 2005, the risk level was downgraded by IUCN. Their population improved to 411 by 2010 and to 523 by 2015. The big cats, however, continue to be an endangered species on IUCN Red List of Threatened Species on the grounds of the size of its population and the fact that the Asiatic lions are surviving in one subpopulation.
The population growth of 27.25 per cent between 2010 and 2015 was the highest in the recorded history of Gir. Among all the four districts with lion population, Amreli had recorded the highest — 61 per cent growth. The number of Asiatic lions in Amreli went up from 108 in 2010 to 174 in 2015. This rate was only 16 per cent in Junagadh-Gir Somnath and 12 per cent in Bhavnagar. More interestingly, the population of lions living outside protected areas (PA) or on agro-pastoral land grew by a hefty 126 per cent in the five years taking their number to 167 from 74.
Lion prides have dispersed outside their traditional home in Gir forest and settled in revenue areas of Amreli, Gir Somnath and Bhavnagar districts. And this poses newer challenges to farmers and cattle herders. Meanwhile, more than 4,000 Maldharis, traditional forest dwellers and cattle herders, continue to live in the Gir forest — in 52 nesses (Maldhari settlements) and 12 settlement villages. As of 2010, they were rearing around 23,000 domestic animals, including cattle and buffaloes, according to a state forest department booklet. Resident cattle population inside Gir forest was 24,300 in 1970. After the Maldharis were rehabilitated outside the forest, the cattle population dropped to 12,500 in 1988. But many Maldharis have returned to the jungle and the resident cattle population, including buffaloes, have again gone up to 23,000 by 2010, mentions the booklet. Diet composition of lion, however, has seen a reverse trend. Domestic animals used to account for 75 per cent of predations of lions in 1973. This had come down to 25 per cent in 2010.
“Inside the Gir forest, around 80 per cent of prey comes from wild sources while domestic animals account for only the remaining 15 per cent. Of the 85 per cent, spotted deer account for 45 per cent, sambar and nilgais (blue bulls) 15 per cent each and wild boars around 6 per cent. But there are spatial and temporal variations. Livestock account for 22 per cent of the diet of Asiatic lions in Gir (east) division. This is partly because of more availability of cattle in Gir (east) as compared to Gir (west). The predation pattern also witnesses seasonal variations. Depredation of domestic animals remains high during rainy season whereas incidents of preying on wild ungulates goes up during summer as the herbivores concentrate around waterholes,” says a forest officer who has served in Gir.
Noticeably, population of wild ungulates like spotted deer, sambar, blue bulls, four-horned antelopes, Indian gazelles and wild boars have seen a dramatic rise after the Maldharis were rehabilitated outside Gir forest. From merely 4,600 in 1974, their number has soared to around 75,000 in 2015. The percentage decline in depredation on livestock notwithstanding, the number of cattle being preyed on by lions in Gir has gone up from 1,675 individuals per year between 1986 and 2001 to 2023 per year between 2005 and 2009, state government records show. The figures remain higher in satellite lion populations in Rajula, Jafrabad, Liliya, Amreli, Sutrapada, and Kodinar.
Spread over 94.60 sq. km, Dalkhaniya range, one of the largest among the 16 ranges of Gir forest, is constituted by parts of contiguous Gir forest, and, at least five forest patches, including Sarasiya Vidi, Uttar Block, Ramgadh reserve forest, etc. It is also interspersed by 27 revenue villages, including Sarasiya. While almost all of them have sizeable cattle populations, save Sarasiya, none of them have pastoral land of size. Sarasiya has around 700 hectares of community-grazing land and also hosts a gaushala, a cattle camp run by a charitable organisation right on the border of the Sarasiya Vidi. “Our village’s grazing land sustains cattle population of four-five nearby villages. But it is not like that no Maldhari ever touches the border of the forest,” says Champubhai Vala, a resident of Sarasiya and who is a member of Dhari taluka panchayat.
“Dogs are the leopard’s favourite prey and the forest department does not allow us to keep pet dogs. Therefore, during night time, we have to rely on our buffaloes to alert us, by grunting and snorting, should a lion prey on our herd,” says an elderly Maldhari woman, who stays in a ness in Gir (west) forest. Another Maldhari, on the eastern periphery of Dalkhaniya range, says, “The forest department wants us out. But we Maldharis are the true protector of lions. We keep track of their movement. If more Maldharis are shifted out of the forest, more lions will take the same route.”
But forest officers reject the suggestion that lions are depending too much on cattle for food thereby getting exposed to risks of diseases. “It is more about availability and opportunity of prey. While hunting, lions do not make distinction between domestic and wild animals,” says an officer.
In 2013, the Supreme Court had ordered the translocation of Asiatic lions to Kuno-Palpur Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. The order had come after Gujarat government argued that lions were Gujarat’s pride and will not be shifted. After the recent deaths, a section of experts underlines the need for giving the lions a geographically separate home. But Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani reiterated last week that the animals were safe in Gujarat and adequate steps were being taken to protect them. Ravi Chellam, an authority on the Asiatic lion, says the incident of infections underlines the importance of creating a second home for lions. “Gujarat needs to gracefully accept the court order. Why do any of us buy medical insurance or life insurance? We do it to get a safety net. If something happens to us, there is some monetary support to the family. In the case of medical insurance, there is monetary support to help us recover and get treated. Translocation has to be viewed purely like that. The people of Gujarat, the government of Gujarat, the forest department of Gujarat have done a remarkable job. But even success needs to be managed,” says Chellam.
Tourism has dipped in Sasan, the headquarters of Gir National Park and Sanctuary (GNPS), which is opened to tourists from October 15 every year. The GNPS and the nearby Gir Interpretation Zone or Devaliya Safari park records footfall of around 5,00,000 tourists every year. “But we apprehend the forest department might delay resumption of tourism activity by a couple of weeks due to the current situation,” says Imtiaz Bloch, a travel agent in Sasan.
“We need to develop a green economy mutually beneficial to wildlife and locals to keep conservation sustainable. Cooperation of local communities is indispensable in wildlife conservation,” says a senior forest officer.