Recently, a video showing an Asiatic lion eating grass went viral on social media in Gujarat. Many wondered if lions indeed eat grass! As a matter of fact, wild carnivores often eat grass when they have a stomach upset so as to vomit undigested food, and in some cases, to encapsulate shards in bony food.
Though lions are carnivores, there is an umbilical link between grass and the big cats. Grass is the starting point of all major food chains. Wild ungulates like spotted deer, blue bulls (nilgai), sambar, wild boars etc, which form the main prey-base of Asiatic lions, dependent on good grass. Their habitat comprises grasslands and open patches.
The Saurashtra region is interspersed with 106 reserved vidis (grasslands) maintained by the forest department and 434 non-reserved vidis controlled by other agencies. They are spread over 1,810 sq km, making up 20 per cent of total grassland cover in Gujarat. Private vidis, gauchars (community grasing-lands controlled by village panchayats) and government wastelands supplement these vidis. Most of these vidis are part of the 22,000-sq km Greater Gir landscape, the last abode of Asiatic lions.
A good lion habitat must have a good prey-base. For a healthy prey-base, grasslands are the key. Lion conservation efforts are focused on habitat improvement and, by extension, on improvement of grasslands. Dispersal of lions from the core Gir forest was possible due to a matrix of grasslands and open patches in the Greater Gir area. It is imperative, therefore, to initiate landscape-level interventions to ensure that the lion population keeps thriving. Since these big cats coexist with local agro-pastoralists, minimising competition for natural resources between wildlife and local communities is crucial. Productive grasslands can help achieve this. They can make a very good habitat for lions while also meeting requirements of the locals.
Lions have been dispersing out of the core Gir forest for the past 15 years. According to the 2015 census, out of total 523 Asiatic lions, 167 were living outside protected forests. That is one-third of their population. The lions living outside protected forests have made these grasslands in revenue areas their home. Hence, these grasslands will be critical to lions’ further dispersal and sustaining their robust population growth seen over the past couple of decades.
Over a period of time, however, these grasslands have degraded owing to invasion of woody and shrubby species and have turned into somewhat unproductive woodlots. Hardly any grass grows in them now. Instead, growth of species like lantana, prosopis, van tulsi and cassia defines their vegetation. This vegetation is unpalatable for wild ungulates and domestic animals.
The progressive degradation of grasslands has exacerbated some of the present problems like shortage of fodder, lack of good grazing grounds for maldharis (a semi-nomadic pastoralist community), increase in crop depredation by wild herbivores etc. Eventually, it can prove detrimental to animal husbandry, which, after agriculture, is the other major occupation in Saurashtra. As grasslands on forest fringes become unsuitable for wildlife and local livestock, the fringe further shifts towards agricultural fields and human settlements. This, in turn, is aggravating human-wildlife conflict. In the long run, such a scenario may sour the unique sentiment and goodwill the local communities have for wildlife in general and lions in particular.
This gradual, unattended shift has affected both ecology and economics of the region. Village panchayats are unable to maintain their gauchars for lack of resources. Nor do they consider managing their gauchars and wastelands a priority. The continued apathy is resulting in large-scale encroachment on such swathes and soil mining from such patches. There aren’t many management interventions by the forest department either in the non-reserved vidis. The net result is that the landscape is suffering the tragedy of commons and a vicious self-perpetuating circle of unproductiveness.
For long-term ecological and economic security, all stakeholders need to make a collective effort. The forest and revenue departments and panchayats need to take up a joint mission to restore these grasslands. Good productive grasslands are extremely important for fodder security. For instance, the more than 1.6 crore kg of grass collected by the forest department from reserve vidis in 2018-19 will be available for distribution in the event of a drought. Grasslands are important for water security too as they serve as great watersheds. The conflict due to crop depredation and lions venturing into human habitations can also be mitigated if grasslands are maintained and managed properly. Wild herbivores naturally prefer open and productive patches and thereby keep carnivores interested in such areas. Grassland restoration will also help in the conservation of bustards, floricans, wolves, blackbucks and many other wild species that share a similar habitat.
Wildlife conservation and sustainable utilisation of grasslands are not mutually exclusive pursuits. Grassland restoration will not only have positive ecological effects on long-term lion conservation, it will also yield significant socioeconomic benefits to the locals. Just like with lion conservation, grassland restoration can also be done with the participation of local communities. They can help in tending grasslands and clearing any woodlots, if required. Part of the proceeds from wood clearing can be shared with the panchayats.
The recent UN-led conference to combat desertification committed to achieving land degradation neutrality by 2030. At this conference, India committed to restoring at least 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. Gujarat can begin with restoration of the grasslands in Saurashtra.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 2, 2019 under the title ‘Grass for lions’. The writer, an IFS officer, presently serves as deputy conservator of forest, Gir West Forest Division in Junagadh. Views are personal