Reports of the deaths, within a few weeks, of 23 lions of a pride in Gir Forest, the only home of the Asiatic Lion, have deeply disturbed us all.
Historically, the range of the Asiatic lion included South-eastern Europe, Black Sea basin, Caucasus, Persia, Mesopotamia, Baluchistan, and the Indian subcontinent from Sind in the west to Bengal in the east. (IUCN). Today Panthera leo persica is confined to the Gir Forest and its environs, in Saurashtra, Gujarat.
As per a 2015 census, there were only 523 lions and they were all in the Gir area. Nowhere else in the world!
‘The lions face the usual threats of poaching and habitat fragmentation. Three major roads and a railway track pass through the Gir Protected Area (PA). Also, there are three big temples inside the PA that attract large number of pilgrims, particularly during certain times of the year. There has been an increase in lion population, and more than 200 lions stay outside the PA. Though the conflict is not high now, with changing lifestyles and values these may increase in the future. There are also cases of lions dying by falling into the unguarded wells around the Gir PA.’ says WWF.
But the single most serious threat could be the fact that the population is confined only to one place. It is well established scientifically that any such population is vulnerable to threats of various types.
One obvious danger is the risk of genetic inbreeding arising from a single population in one place.
But the other, even more serious risk, as IUCN puts it, is: ‘The small pocket of distribution of the Asiatic lions has led IUCN to consider them an endangered species, in fears that if an epidemic or forest fire were to break out, the whole population of Asian lions would be wiped out from the wild.’
The worst fears are coming true. A single episode has brought a whole pride to the brink in a few days. What is the guarantee that the epidemic will not spread? We can only pray.
For decades, biodiversity and conservation experts have been advocating that some lions from Gir be re-located to another suitable habitat, after proper research and preparation, so as to create another viable population. It is not that efforts have not been made. Palpur Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh has been identified, numerous studies undertaken and a lot of preparation done.
But Gujarat has refused to let the lions be re-located, claiming that these lions are the Pride of Gujarat.
No doubt they are! But they are also the universal heritage of humankind. The loss of a species is irretrievable and irreversible. When we lose a species, we lose something of ourselves. In such a situation, is there a ‘mine’ and a ‘yours’? Or is there only an ‘ours’?