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Sunday, June 20, 2021


For Who, This Lion's share..?


It's time lions returned to the lands where they once roamed and roared freely
PRASHANTO BANERJI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Prashanto Banerji | Hiren Bhai | Maldharis | Masairungu |

Picture  this… You are Hiren Bhai or his wife Hira, and you live 20 kilometres away from the outskirts of the protected forests that the Asiatic lion calls its home. You were moved out to this location from your cattle stations in the heart of the forest by the forest department five years ago to reduce occasions of conflict between Maldharis (traditional cattle graziers of Saurashtra) and the lions that often prey upon the livestock that are the Maldhari’s life blood.

Here, outside the forest, in the country, you miss the sights and sounds of the forest, the freedom to roam where your cattle lead you and the still and quiet of the forest after sunset. Out here, near a busy state highway, you can't afford the acreage that is needed to house the score and more heads of cattle that you once owned and just have five buffaloes to remind you of the days that were. But your life while much changed, isn’t all that bad. The milk from the small grocery store that you set up by the state highway more than makes up for the rest of your cattle. Your children can now go to school and the town hospital, bazaars,  and all essential supplies are all less than an hour away on your neighbour’s tractor trailer. You have to be careful about the buffaloes not straying into ploughed fields when you go out with them, and you need to be careful as you cross the highway with them, but you haven’t lost any to the cars and buses while you could always expect to lose one to a lion or a leopard when the rains are bad. Life is different, but not bad.

Dawn hasn’t yet broken, this cold winter night, as you wake up with a bladder stretched tight. You wish it away but it insists. It will not be denied. You rise and your feet touch the cold cement floor. Even after five years, your feet still miss the mellow feel of the beaten earthen floor in your forest-ness. You rise and as your eyes focus in the darkness, you catch a glint of your old companion, a short handled axe, (much like the Masairungu, but with an edge) standing by the wall. In the old days in the forest, you wouldn’t take a step  outside the doorway without wrapping your fingers around the smooth wooden handle but today you walk past, and through the doorway. It’s been years since you picked it up. It looks too potent a weapon for the stray dogs in the village.

A low rumble rolls out of one of the buffaloes as you walk past your prized Jaffrabadis. They are tied to stakes by their feeding troughs instead of being corralled like they were in the forest. Warm vapours swirl out of those big black nostrils as you shuffle on towards the bushes, egged on by an adamant bladder.

You squat down while the buffaloes stare, and one lows, perhaps a little distressed. Must be the pregnant one, you surmise… but it’s still early for her you wonder as the first wave of relief and ease pushes away all other concerns…

Two nights ago, in the heart of the Gir.

Toofan, a scraggy maned eight year old lion hurries through the bush, stopping every fifty metres to look over his shoulder and waits, with a longing. As he stares into the darkness, his nostrils twitch, and his longing is overcome by another stronger, darker emotion, perhaps fear, and he trots away, only to stop and look, and hope. Twice he retraces his steps and tries to return to the forest but then he stops and walks away again. And as Toofan blunders through the scrubland, he hears it… the booming thunderclap of a lion’s roar and it’s sawing aftermath, and then another… A deafening crescendo of roars that proclaim to all within earshot… the king has fallen, and a new king, nay two kings, lions, brothers, have taken his pride, and taken over his pride. The roars put the fear of death in Toofan’s bleeding heart… a death he escaped by the torn skin of his hide. He hurries away from the territory that was once his and tries to enter other enclaves in the forest.

His days as a king maybe over. He may have lost his harem to the twins that usurped his reign. His cubs must be dead by now, chewed up by the new kings, keen to stamp the pride with their own fresh blood, but he can still live out a life of dignity in the forest. The flesh wounds on his shoulder should heal. His torn face doesn’t matter. His claws are sharp, his teeth intact, and the vigour in his veins will return once the shock of pain and defeat leaves him. He may not have the strength to conquer and rule a pride again but he can hunt and he will live.

But there are unseen walls that stop him. Territories marked with urine and claw mark the lands of other prides that tell him of lions younger and stronger than him, who will show no mercy if they find him on their lands. No he must press on and he does, stopping at a brook to quench his thirst, to lick his wounds and to scavenge a morsel if he can, for he cannot till he heals.

The roars in his head, the fear in his heart and the ominous odours in his nostrils push him out of the forest and into the scrublands that border the villages. Past midnight on the second day of his ouster, he picks up the promising smell of livestock. Slower and heavier than deer, and not as feisty as wild boar, Toofan had hunted livestock earlier in the forest. It had been easier than taking a fawn, but where there are cattle there will be humans. But its still dark and humans do not interfere with kills in the dark. Toofan smells hope after two nights of fear and despair. He follows the scent… past scrubland and into a village. Though as large as a donkey, Toofan has the instincts of a cat, and he makes it past fields, huts and the highway and just before dawn, reaches the bushes the surround Hirabhai’s cattle pen. He sees the buffalo out on open ground and then a shadow squatting at the edge of the brush. To the cat’s mind, it is happier catching prey in the dark under cover than in the open in the breaking light. Toofan’s mind is made up and he crouches, shuffles and without a sound other than a deep low growl, is upon the figure by the bush…

By 1857, the last Asiatic lions outside Saurashtra had been hunted and killed. Though once, they strolled by the rivers of Babylon, and their reign extended all the way along the Ganges and into Bihar, demand for Asiatic lions in the coliseums of Rome, royal hunts for trophy beasts, so each king along its reign could claim “mine is bigger than yours”, conflict with agriculturists and pastoralists through the ages had reduced its  reign to a little pocket in Gujarat.

The Asiatic lion’s last stand towards the end of the 19th century was in an area that was divided between Junagadh, Baroda and Bhavnagar. And like siblings squabbling over a pie, they jealously protected the lions in their kingdoms while trying to lure and hunt the ones in the neighbouring lands. 

Ostensibly, the last two Nawabs of Junagadh state, Rasulkhanji and Mahbatkhanji III, did far better and far more conscientious job of protecting the lions than any of the other princely states. Junagadh’sNawabs and Diwans did all they could to protect the lions. Though royals from far and wide, as well as British bureaucrats and administrators strove hard to get permits to shoot lions, the Junagadh forest department refused many, many more than they accepted.  And yet, despite all their diligence, Junagadh state was left with the last 10 or 12 survivors of the great race that had once spared Daniel and battled Samson.

In the year 1900, Lord Curzon cancelled his state visit (which traditionally entailed bagging a Gir lion) to Junagadh when he heard how few now remain and urged the Nawab to redouble his efforts to protect the last of the Asiatic lions.

As you squat, scream and quake in your now soiled shoes while Toofan buries his fangs in your shoulder and his claws rip through cloth and skin, you might wish Lord Curzon had not been such a sissy and put an end to the lion’s last stand, and not being in your shoes, I’m no one to judge what you might want to wish for as you struggle to fight off the hungry lion who might be startled to discover a human between his jaws but is now too desperate to care.

In all probability, your screams will bring out the other villagers. Toofan’s momentary hesitation will buy you time and soon you will be safe and the lion will be sorry.

Later, once your wounds have healed, and you trace  the scabs and scars with your finger, were you to be a real Maldhari, more than being angry or scared, what you would have been, is surprised.

The lions of Gir are amongst tolerant of large predators in the world. Man and lion have shared space in this corner of Gujarat for eons and have grown to trust and tolerate each other and even understand each other. In Gir, people of the forest don’t move in fear of the predator in their midst like they do in the Sunderbans, or Churchil or Tsavo. Here, they respect it, tolerate it, give it the space it demands with a growl or a stare, but they don’t fear it. Skirmishes over a cattle kill apart, over the centuries, there haven’t been many cases of lions hunting, killing or eating man, until now.

From a low of a dozen lions in the early 1900s, the lion population picked up and after Independence, laws were enacted, pockets of land were added to the protected areas, hunting was outlawed and numbers climbed up. The king beneath the coat has begun reclaiming its kingdom. From the early days of a few hundred square kilometres of forest land that constituted the Asiatic lion’s ‘protected’ habitat, it now reigns over 20,000 square kilometres of fragmented forests.

523 lions now roam the forests and fields and even roads and towns of Gujarat, with nearly half of these lions having spilled over into unprotected areas outside the Gir sanctuary. The local forest administration with support from the state machinery has carried forward the good work of the last Nawabs and worked hard to protect the lions. And the lions, given a toehold, have thrived.

But while the state government deserves the nation’s and even the world’s gratitude for protecting an ecology and its flagship and bringing it back from the brink of oblivion, it now risks smothering the object of its affection with it’s protective paranoia and sense of pride.

Gir has too many lions for its own good. Their numbers are growing and they have nowhere to go. Cramped for space between dominant resident lions and the relentless waves of the Arabian Sea, whole prides are now looking for haunts near villages and cities.

After a spate of uncharacteristic attacks on people within the last six months and lions showing up in Junagadh town and Jaffrabad port, it is obvious by now that Gujarat has too much of a good thing.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court ordered the translocation of some of Gujarat’s lions to PalpurKuno in Madhya Pradesh. Kuno has been studied and approved by environmental experts as the ideal location as the second home of the Asiatic lion. It was a part of the lion’s range before it was hunted to extinction, locally. But the Gujarat Government refuses to relent. It has questioned the ability of other state governments to protect and preserve the lion effectively. It cites the extinction of tigers in Sariska, Rajasthan and Panna, Madhya Pradesh, as cases in point.

But the fact remains that both MP and Rajasthan are also home to some of India’s best managed parks, in Ranthambore, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. And more tellingly, while ruling party MPs in the state are calling for lion culls, and arming villagers with firearms so they could shoot to kill, doesn’t it make sense for all concerned that the Prime Minister relents and shares the pride of Gujarat with the rest of India instead of letting the situation fester to the detriment of both lions and local.

I will not bore you with discussions about the need to distribute endangered populations over a wide geographical area to overcome genetic bottlenecks and as protection from localized epidemics which could decimate populations that are in close contact.

Instead I would urge you to consider how nice it would be if the lion, instead of being cooped up in the enclave that once was its only refuge, now returns to those lands that had once also reverberated with the roar of the king of beasts. Yet another of Gujarat’s prides shall become the pride of the nation. And when Gujarat wasn’t shy about sharing the first, why be stingy about the latter.

Now go, wash your shoes...

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017