Home / Politics / Policy /  Asiatic lion population in Gujarat touches 523

Ahmedabad: The number of Asiatic lions in Gujarat, the last abode of the rare big cat, has risen 27% in the last five years, fresh data show.

According to the latest census figures released on Sunday, the western state now hosts 523 members of panthera leo persica, the lion sub-species now found only in Gujarat’s Gir forest and surrounding areas. In 2010, when the last census was conducted, the figure was 411.

Calling the lion “a pride of Gujarat and the country" while releasing the census figures, chief minister Anandiben Patel said this was aptly represented in the logo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India initiative.

Lions are believed to have evolved in Europe and moved south as climate changed. African and Indian lions were separated about 55,000 years ago, evolving into two different sub-species. Having survived in parts of Iran, Iraq and India, lions became extinct in all its distribution ranges in the beginning of the 20th century, except the Gir forest.

The protected area of Asiatic lions is spread over 1,452 sq. km and includes five regions, including the Gir National Park, the Gir sanctuary, Matiyana and Paniya. The population rise has forced many lions to move out of the protected area.

While the census did not reveal the numbers in the protected area, two officials working closely with the state forest department said the lion population in that area has more or less stabilized. “In 2010, there were 306 lions in the PA (protected area). This would have gone up marginally to 310 or 312," said one of the two officials, on condition of anonymity.

Asiatic lions live in 22,000 sq. km across five districts in Gujarat.

The lion census figures follow India’s tiger census in January, which showed a similar 30% jump in their numbers since 2010. A study by the University of Oxford, Indian Statistical Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society, though, has said the method used in the tiger census may not have been accurate.

“Every year, from the last 40 years, the lion population has been increasing by about 2-3%. In comparison, the latest census shows the great efforts of the state government along with the local community in conserving this rare species," said Kaushik Banerjee, a research associate with the Wildlife Institute of India, who was involved in the latest census.

The increasing lion population poses the challenge of conserving lions outside protected areas in the middle of human populations, Banerjee said, adding that the rise in the population has been mainly in areas outside the protected area. A further increase could create man-animal conflicts, Banerjee cautioned. An adult lion needs food equivalent to about 35-36 buffaloes every year.

Asiatic lions are counted every five years. The next one will be in 2020. Since 1968, when 177 lions were counted, the figures have steadily grown.

Amreli district saw the greatest rise in the lion population with a current population of 174, the chief minister said, without providing comparative figures on previous censuses.

The rising lion population has created new challenges. There is a state government proposal pending with the centre to open a new lion reserve to take the pressure off Gir in Junagadh. This will be spread across 109 sq. km, at least 70km away from Gir. The identified area, apart from being home to some lions, also acts as a corridor for lions to travel along the banks of Shatrunj river to relatively newer territories near Bhavnagar and Amreli regions.

In the past, Barda Wildlife Sanctuary near Junagadh was identified as a second home for lions. The state government proposed early this year to notify 3,467 sq. km. as ecologically sensitive zone (ECZ) near Gir, barring any industrial development.

The average age of a lion in the wild is 13-14 years. “While there have been ups and downs in tiger population, for the past four decades, there has been a constant rise in the lion population in Gujarat. The survival rate of the Asiatic lion is about 35%, which is much more than the African lion where the chances of cubs crossing the age of two is only 23%," said H.S. Singh, member of National Board for Wildlife, which functions under the environment ministry.

“While Africa had about 200,000 lions about a century ago, they are down to 30,000 today. Whereas in Gujarat, the lions, which were on a brink of extinction, have become a successful conservation story today," said Sandeep Kumar, deputy conservator of forests, wildlife, Gir sanctuary.

For over 130 years, Asiatic lions have been restricted to the Gir and its surrounding areas. Rampant lion hunting brought their numbers down to a few dozens in the early 1980s. At the turn of the 20th century, the princely ruler of Junagadh banned hunting lions.

In 2000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature had added the Asiatic lion to the list of “critically endangered" species. However, in 2011, it was moved to the “endangered" category as its numbers steadily rose.

Epidemics killed a large number of lions at Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, such as in 1994, necessitating a second home for them. However, India’s Gir has become a model of conservation, with constant patrols against poachers.

The lion is well-represented in Indian mythology, but the lion’s seal was absent at the sites of Indus valley civilization, although plenty of seals of tigers, elephants and other animals were recovered.

A member of Parliament recently wrote a letter to the National Board of Wildlife to make the lion India’s national animal. Prior to 1972, the lion was the national animal of India, before the status was awarded to the tiger.

According to the 14th Asiatic Lion Census 2015, conducted by wildlife experts last week, there are 109 adult lions and 201 adult lionesses along with 213 sub adults and cubs in India.

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