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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Not just an abode of lions

Gir's vegetation absorbed the shock of Cyclone Tauktae in May. The forest was the first line of defence of the people of Saurashtra against the fury of winds

Written by Dheeraj Mittal |
Updated: August 6, 2021 10:59:18 am
Lions at Gir National Park. (Express Photo: Javed Raja, File)

Tauktae, the very powerful tropical cyclone which brewed in the Arabian Sea, made landfall near Una in Gujarat on May 17. After moving further inland, it gradually weakened into a low-pressure area on May 19. Just while hitting the Gujarat coast, Tauktae had reached its peak intensity with maximum three-minute sustained winds of 195 km/h and maximum one-minute sustained winds of 220 km/h, and a minimum central pressure of 950 millibars, making it a storm equivalent of a Category 4 tropical cyclone on the Saffir–Simpson scale, as per a report from Space Application Center, ISRO.

This kind of enormous wind speed led to large scale uprooting of trees in the revered Gir Protected Area (Gir PA). One is drawn to note similarities between the Kedarnath flash floods of 2013 and the trail of destruction left by Tauktae on Saurashtra coast of Gujarat. The flash flood swept away almost everything on the banks of river Mandakini. However, thanks to Bheem Shila, the huge boulder which came rolling down from upstream and got stuck at the back Kedarnath temple, the holy shrine miraculously remained intact. The boulder diverted the torrent of floodwaters and shielded the temple. Much like the Bheem Shila, Gir forest, the largest compact tract of forest in the Saurashtra region, stood firm in the path of Tauktae and human habitations. The rugged terrain of the forest absorbed the initial fury of the cyclone. The dense vegetation resisted the squally winds and perhaps helped in dissipating the thunderous devastating energy of Tauktae and weakened the cyclone significantly before it could move to human habitations further inland. Imagine a scenario wherein there was no such resistance in the path of the catastrophic whirls of wind with rains. The Gir forest absorbed the shock and acted as the first line of defence for residents of Saurashtra against the natural threat emanating from the sea. It undoubtedly helped in keeping the loss of lives limited. A comprehensive estimate of the services rendered by Gir forest as defence against natural forces like cyclones can be a difficult exercise, but the benevolence of Gir has certainly assumed a new dimension post Tauktae.

But for standing in the way of the cyclone, Gir, the forest synonymous with the only wild population of the Asiatic lions in the world, paid a price. It bore the brunt of the cyclone. The landscape, known for its rich biodiversity and which supports a large number of animals, including many rare and threatened species has changed as vegetation of Gir has sustained damages on a huge scale. A quick assessment by the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad has shown that the cyclone affected around 30 per cent area of Gir, highly or moderately. As per estimates of Gujarat Forest Department, millions of trees have been uprooted or damaged. The eastern part of Gir PA is affected worse, though the uprooting of trees has been noticed in most part of Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary area. Besides vegetation related damages, there were damages to forest infrastructure viz, watch towers, wireless/GSWAN towers, solar power panels, wind mills, parking shed, cage shed, partial damages to buildings, roads etc.

The uprooted trees pose immediate and future challenges. Since large number of trees have fallen, the area on ground has become cluttered, with fallen trees reducing space and causing hindrance to wildlife movement and making access an issue. In many areas, leaning trees have entangled with each other, obstructing lower canopy growth. This scenario may also be treated as a reduction in total available habitat space for wildlife in Gir PA. Natural regeneration of many species may also be impacted in future. Further, due to the fallen trees, open patches for grasses will be affected and may affect new grass regeneration. In addition, after the drying of these trees and biomass, it will be a huge fire hazard in the future in a wildlife-rich forest area. Overall, the quality of the habitat will be affected, which is not good for a thriving population of herbivores and flagship species like Asiatic lions in Gir PA.

In the past, a severe cyclone had swept through Gir, uprooting approximately 2.8 million trees and opening up the forest canopy. Almost forty years later, we have a much severe situation which needs effective and conservation-oriented management response. It is imperative that such managerial interventions be guided by “in the best interest of the species” principle for the conservation of Asiatic lions in Gir PA. The natural disaster has resulted in an unprecedented situation and needs immediate attention of the management to maintain the quality of habitat with regard to a growing wildlife population and to prevent any major forest fire which may be catastrophic for the wildlife in tropical dry deciduous forests like Gir. Considering the above aspects, the fallen trees must be cut to clear the forest floor and create open spaces. Such opened spaces will result in better visibility in the forest for better prey-predator interaction and will allow hassle-free movement and access to wildlife. It will also promote growth of lower canopy flora and grass, critical for herbivores, which, in turn, support the lion population as the prey base. This ecological event, though catastrophic in first place, is an opportunity to improve productivity of Gir forest ecosystem. Quick managerial interventions will lead to more grass and open patches crucial for wildlife habitat, facilitating wildlife movement and access. In the longer run, the carrying capacity of Gir PA with regard to lions may also have a positive impact. Overall improved habitat may be maintained and sustained with timely operations in Gir.

The Gir owes our gratitude for saving the people of Saurashtra by providing enormous ecological services and harbouring the only population of Asiatic Lions in the world.

The writer, an IFS officer, presently serves as Deputy Conservator of Forest, Gir West Forest Division in Junagadh. Views are personal

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