Endangered Asian lion faces new threat: wildlife tourism around Gir


The growing population and the lion’s dispersal outside of Gir have spurred unregulated wildlife tourism

I love lions. I love watching them, ”said a farmer I interviewed in Dalkhaniya village in Amreli district in Gujarat as part of my social survey in the agrarian landscape outside the Gir Protected Area. I found myself beaming and concluded that it reflected a remarkable local acceptance and love for lions.

But he continued: “… in the forest, that is to say. But on the farm, I prefer to see oxen. After a surprise break, my colleagues and I burst out laughing. We understood what he was trying to say: “We love lions but prefer them to be confined to the forest.”

My research over 15 years consisted of deciphering the dynamics of the remarkable coexistence of wildlife and humans in this farm-house-forest matrix – the fears, concerns, humor that mark people’s perceptions of predators. within them. But I am also very aware of the delicacy of this balance in coexistence and the ease with which the scales can tip over, endangering an entire species.

Gir and its surroundings are the last wild havens of the endangered Asiatic lion. The remarkable growth of the lion population in this landscape – from around 300 in 1995 to over 500 in 2015 – is a testament to the success of conservation management over the decades. In 2015-2016, Gujarat celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Asian lion conservation management – it was 50 years since Gir was declared a protected area in 1965.

Over the past 25 years or so, a noticeable trend in the distribution of lions has been recorded in the region: the animals, their numbers increasing, venture far from the protected area and have come to live in a staggering range of habitats. – rolling expanses, coasts, pastures and farmland.

While the growing population and expansion of habitat is great news for lion conservation, it has also brought lions closer to people outside of the PA. It also means that there are more incidents of livestock depredation and attacks on people by lions. Reports of lion deaths due to unnatural causes – railway and road accidents, electric shock, drowning in open wells and occasional carcass poisoning – are also cause for concern. And so, protecting lions and people outside the PA has recently become a challenge for the forestry department.

The lion’s dispersal has also resulted in another disturbing phenomenon – a huge increase in unregulated wildlife tourism around the protected area. Videos of tourists on bicycles and cars chasing lions for several miles at night have been widely shared on social media. The better-off of these “wildlife enthusiasts” are willing to pay up to 20,000 to see lions. “They are after all safe in their vehicles. It’s very different for people like us who often have to walk alone in these areas with just a torch in hand. We cannot feel the same enthusiasm, ”said a resident of Malshika village in Amreli district. The villagers I speak to often say that this kind of cheeky tourism affects the largely harmonious dynamic between the villagers and the big cats, making the animals more irritable and aggressive.

Temple in the heart

The increasing number of visitors each year is only a small part of the problem: the rise of wildlife and religious tourism in the region is altering the landscape by catalyzing urbanization, altering land use, and altering the landscape. profile and influence of actors.

Meanwhile, the state government allowed overnight stays at the Kankai Temple in the central area of ​​Gir National Park in 2017, despite concerns from wildlife experts. Although the authorization is accompanied by a regulation, the visitors who slip through this new loophole will mostly belong to the “ecotourism” category. The consequence would be an increase in nighttime traffic, noise and disturbance to wildlife by people visiting the temple. This, despite the fact that the proposal has been opposed tooth and nail for more than 20 years or more.

Another disturbing proposal is the state government’s plan to reduce the environmentally sensitive area around Gir. An environmentally sensitive area, according to Department of the Environment guidelines, can extend up to 10 km around a PA. Here, certain development activities are prohibited. As for Gir, the eco-sensitive area could be reduced to less than 1 km in some areas, opening those parts to mining and tourism. Night permits for the Kankai temple and the delineation of environmentally sensitive areas are contested through the PILs and are reviewed by the courts.

There is yet another recent development that is sure to bring about changes in the landscape in the form of habitat loss, land degradation through roads, resorts, traffic and pollution: the release of the land. Ambardi interpretation area, essentially a safari park where tourists can drive. see captive lions in closed natural environments. This interpretation area is only 15 km from the protected area.

The future of a healthy lion population calls for a step back on many decisions made in recent times, whether they relate to delineating environmentally sensitive areas, promoting tourism, or submitting to the demands of powerful groups. pressure. We must remember that the agro-pastoral landscape around the sanctuary is as important as the dedicated management, political will, people’s tolerance and lion resilience in contributing to the conservation success of the Asian lion. Preserving all of this matrix will determine whether there will be another jubilee celebration in the future.

The author is a wildlife biologist who has been involved in Asian lion research for over 15 years.

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