Large carnivores have always been a source of fascination for people and our relationships with them vary from awe and inspiration to fear and loathing. More than any other animals, carnivores have forced us to move from ecosystem theory to ecosystem management and conservation with a focal shift from species to systems and from science vs. management to science and management. Large carnivores often provide the ultimate test of society’s willingness to conserve wildlife and thus have traditionally served as a charismatic conservation flagship worldwide. Nevertheless, recent assessments of the conservation status of carnivores present an alarming picture of ongoing declines and range contractions. Although carnivore conservation across the globe -- and particularly in an agrarian country like India -- is fraught with human dominations of potential habitats, poaching and fragmentation, the Gir lions in the westernmost state of Gujarat, India, have an altogether different story to narrate.
There are, however, deep concerns too! With lions living in the propinquity of humans, conflicts are not far away. Lions are residing in areas where people (mostly young generations) do not have a recent memory of living with lions and this is likely to escalate human-lion confrontations in the future as lion numbers increases and range expands further. Lions do need daytime habitat refugia characterized by small grasslands, orchards and agricultural covers (Prosospis thickets) in the landscape and such patches are extremely crucial for maintenance of breeding nuclei and minimizing conflicts with people. However, with increased urbanization, agricultural intensification, sedentarization of pastoralism and potential for lion-centric tourisms, traditional land-use patterns of lion occupied areas of Saurashtra are fast succumbing to land mafias such as mining companies and tourism big shots. While the government machinery is busy managing lion populations inside the Protected Areas, lions in the larger landscape often fall prey to human-induced mortalities (electrocution, fall in open irrigation wells, road accidents etc.), sometimes even unnoticed. The protected area of Gir will undeniably remain a lion stronghold unabated for the long-term unless the population is affected by an environmental stochastic event, but conserving lions in the outer landscape while maintaining ecological linkages (habitat corridors) with Gir is imperative to ensure long-term viability of Gir lions. It is sometimes unfortunate to find that in the absence of a clear-cut land policy, government has very little control over such crucial habitat patches needed for future lion conservation. We must acknowledge that ‘vibrant Gujarat’ may not be parallel with ‘green Gujarat’: one element has to lose the race and it is the forest that has been losing the duel since the dawn of human civilization .
Kausik Banerjee has been working on the Asiatic lions for the past nine years. Since obtaining his doctoral degree in lion ecology from the Forest Research Institute of India he has worked as a Research Associate at WII. His research interests include carnivore ecology and behaviour with an emphasis on resource selection, prey-predator dynamics and human–carnivore conflicts.