Lions on the march
The Asiatic lions of India were hunted down all over the country and they found refuge in a tiny corner of the Saurashtra peninsula which was their home for most of the 20th century. Now, slowly but surely, the lion is reclaiming his larger kingdom. The Gir national park and sanctuary is unable to contain the growing population of the lions. As their numbers grow from the count of 411 done in mid-2011, the lion kingdom today is nearly 10,500 sq km — almost one-fifth of Saurashtra. As many as 114 lions have drifted way beyond the protected area and spread out into other areas of Amreli, Bhavnagar and Junagadh districts. The length of this kingdom, spread across southern Saurashtra, is a whopping 200 km as the crow flies. Having learnt to live close to friendly human habitations, the lion is moving even out of the forest corridors, feeding largely on domestic cattle in villages which had never seen lions before. The first census in 1968 put the population at 177 lions, all of whom were within the protected zone of Gir sanctuary and national park. Kausik Banerjee, senior research fellow with the Wildlife Institute of India, says, “These areas are not new to the lions. They are only recolonising their past territories.” HS Singh, Gujarat’s additional principal chief conservator of forests ,says, “In 1800, lions were found in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. In 1857, 200-odd lions were hunted in Delhi and nearby areas. The Gir National Park and surrounding area can accommodate only around 300 lions, forcing others to move out.” Neighbouring Madhya Pradesh wants some Gir lions relocated to the Kuno Palpur sanctuary. But cramped for space, Gujarat’s lions have themselves decided to wander around and park themselves wherever they wish. Think about it in another way. Earlier, you had to travel nearly 400 km from Ahmedabad to spot a lion. Now, the beast is half the distance away.