Until a few months ago, I had thought that lions had always existed only in Africa. But it turns out that not only were lions once roaming parts of Asia, there are Asiatic lions in India even today. Apparently there had once been lions all across the land connections between Africa and India, which makes sense once you think about it since there is no reason why they should have limited their territory unless forced to do so by climate or terrain. This explains why lion metaphors can be found in places like Afghanistan where the political and military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was called ‘the Lion of Panjshir’.
But over time the lions in the intervening regions went extinct, leaving just the ones at the two ends of Africa and India. In 2000, the numbers of Asiatic lions went so low that they were placed on the ‘critically endangered’ list but they recovered slightly by 2008 and are now considered to be just ‘endangered’ which is still not good. The numbers are still small enough that authorities are concerned about the deaths of 11 of the animals that they discovered recently.
It remains unclear but officials mainly suspect that a group of lions from a different area killed them in a battle over territory.
They are fairly certain that this is what happened to at least eight of the 11, including three cubs.
Gujarat is the world’s last abode of Asiatic lions, who once prowled a vast region between India and the Middle East.
There are 523 lions living in a 22,000 sq km area across eight districts – including the Gir sanctuary, where the 11 dead lions were found – according to the last census done in 2015.
At least 200 of these lions are living in unprotected areas outside sanctuaries.
The heavily protected Gir sanctuary, say experts, has a “carrying capacity” – an ecosystem’s ability to support a specific and often fixed number of species – of 300 lions.
Since the numbers of lions are now exceeding the carrying capacity of the reserve, the government is seeking to expand their territory.
Wildlife officials say most of the lions outside the sanctuary live in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts. In June, the government announced that 109 sq km of area in these two districts would be reserved as a new sanctuary for lions.
India’s Supreme Court had ruled in 2013 that Gujarat needed to relocate some of its lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state to avoid the possibility of disease or some other disaster wiping out the entire population.
However, the move has been delayed as studies on prey base, vegetation cover and local weather of the new habitat in Madhya Pradesh have not yet been completed.
As is often the case, there is conflict between these animals and the local community as the lions spread outside their current preserve.
Lions are now routinely spotted on private farms and near village homes.
A pride of 18 lions was captured in the region after three people were killed between April and May 2016.
A bulk of the government’s budget for lions is spent on compensating farmers whose cattle have been killed by lions and on removing the big cats from farms.
It is very creditable that the government of India is taking such a humane attitude towards these big cats while also protecting the lives and property of the people who live in proximity with their habitat. It is a very delicate balancing act.