7 mins

Rescuing India's Lions

Lions in India? Yes! What's more, the story of Gujarat’s lions is one of the great conservation success stories. We visit the Indian park where locals, visitors and big cats have learned to live in harmony

Wild lion in the forest (Shutterstock)
Sandy tracks led through a landscape of pale browns and yellows, the floor carpeted with the fallen plate-sized leaves of teak trees. Crossing the dusty beds of dried-up rivers, I spotted a flash of green – parakeets, flocks of them perched high in the trees. The further we drove in the safari jeep, the more I realised just how much life surrounded me. Fuzzy langur monkeys frolicked in the trees above, peacocks strutted through the undergrowth, and herds of spotted deer, great-antlered sambar and huge antelope that the locals call nilgai grazed in the dappled sunlight. It was a wildlife-lover’s delight, but these fine creatures weren’t the reason I was there – I had come to India in search of much bigger game.

When most visitors arrive here in search of wildlife, they tend to gravitate to well-known tiger reserves like Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand or Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. But they are missing one of India’s rarest sights. In the region of Gujarat lies a little-known reserve that is home to a very special and perhaps unexpected resident: Asiatic lions.

Back from the brink

It was late in the afternoon when I drove into Gir National Park. Once a hunting estate, this 1,400 sq km of beautiful and exquisitely tranquil deciduous forest is now a protected wildlife sanctuary, tucked into a remote corner of the state. At seven hours’ drive from the teeming metropolis of Ahmedabad, it’s not an easy journey, but with the tantalising promise of lions on the horizon it was worth the effort.

“This majestic creature has been rescued from the brink of extinction. It’s one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world,” declared my travelling companion Gitanjali Bhattacharya, regional programme manager for the Zoological Society of London, as we bounced along the track. The animals here are the only wild lions left anywhere outside Africa, and their survival has been little short of miraculous.

Lions in Gir forest (Dreamstime)
Lions in Gir forest (Dreamstime)

A century ago, fewer than 20 Asiatic lions were left in the world. Today there are more than 500, and they have spread far beyond Gir’s boundaries. Their recovery contrasts starkly with the fate of Africa’s lions, which have been assailed so relentlessly by hunters, poachers and human encroachment that scarcely 20,000 remain – down from an estimated 450,000 in the 1940s.

The credit for Gujarat’s lion recovery belongs not just to the sustained efforts of its Forest Department (GFD), but two unexpected sources: a pair of long-forgotten minor Indian princes (more on them later) and the astonishing attitude of Gir’s villagers. Far from fearing the lions, locals welcome their presence – even when the animals kill their cattle or, on occasion, humans.

“Not only has the lions’ future been secured but we’re now entering a second phase where they are beginning to regain some of their old territories,” added Gitanjali as we scanned the forest for any signs of movement. “Unlike in Africa, where too many villagers still see lions and other endangered species as competitors for scarce resources, here people revere and protect the animals in their midst.”

Suddenly our guide pointed off to the right. Our eyes followed suit. I squinted at the endless expanse of pale beiges, browns and yellows expecting them to suddenly morph into the shape of a lion. Initially they were hard to spot but slowly they separated from the background like a Magic Eye image coming into focus.

Asiatic lions in Gujarat, India (Shutterstock)
Asiatic lions in Gujarat, India (Shutterstock)

There were seven in all, dozing by a waterhole: two splendid lionesses and five cubs. Their beige fur camouflaged them well, and for a minute I felt as though they might not be there at all. They acknowledged our arrival with a brief indifferent inspection before returning to their slumbers. These lions might not have appreciated how far we had come to see them but we were thrilled all the same.

Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than their African counterparts, with more modest manes and a fold of loose skin along their stomachs. Long ago they were found across the Middle East and northern India, from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal, but during the 19th and early 20th century they were gradually hunted to extinction. In India it was the same story: between the British colonials and the Maharajas, nearly all its lions were shot – all but a handful in Gir on the hunting estate of Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji II, the resident nawab (governor) of Junagadh and unlikely wildlife saviour.

Today, Junagadh is a typically bustling Indian town located just 75km from Gir. I visited its museum the following afternoon, hoping to learn more about the enigmatic nawab, but there was little information to be found, just a glamorous portrait of him resplendent in his flowing robes and turban. This much is known, however: in the 1890s England’s Duke of Clarence visited Junagadh and the nawab had great trouble finding him a lion to shoot. According to one account, there were just 12 left. The nawab duly declared Gir a protected area, if only to ensure he still had some lions left to shoot. But despite his dubious motives, he likely saved a species.

In 1911, the nawab was succeeded by his son Sir Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III, an eccentric ruler who loved animals. He is said to have owned 300 hugely pampered dogs and once invited the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, to the three-day wedding of his favourite canine, Roshanara, to the golden retriever of another prince. The museum has a portrait of him, too, rather fittingly sat with a bejewelled dog at his feet.

The wildlife-loving nawab subsequently banned all shooting at Gir and thus secured the lions’ future, although sadly not his own. As a Muslim he enraged his Hindu subjects by trying to lead Junagadh into the new state of Pakistan following India’s partition in 1947. He was later forced to flee to Karachi, where he died, somewhat ironically, of rabies in 1959.

Rabari women stand in Gujarat (Shutterstock)
Rabari women stand in Gujarat (Shutterstock)

The mane attraction

By the time Gir was made an official sanctuary in 1965 it had around 170 lions, and that number has steadily increased. According to the latest census there are more than 523, with at least 150 of those now living outside the sanctuary, ranging across 20,700 sq km of brush and farmland. Their recovery has been astounding. In 2005, Gir’s lions became the first carnivores to have their conservation status downgraded from critically endangered to simply endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The GFD has done its job well. In the 1970s it moved thousands of maldharis (tribal herdsmen) out of Gir and resettled them elsewhere. The extra grazing space triggered a sharp rise in the number of boar, deer and other animals on which the lions prey.

Female spotted deer in Gujarat, India (Shutterstock)
Female spotted deer in Gujarat, India (Shutterstock)

It also employs around 300 dedicated rangers, many of them women (dubbed ‘Queens of the Forest’), who track the lions armed only with sticks called lathis. I met one of them the next day. Rasila Vadher heads one of three lion rescue teams. They bring about 100 animals a year to a state-of-the-art treatment centre at the park’s headquarters, most of them injured in fights with other lions. At the centre Rasila showed me a steel cage in which she has occasionally been lowered into wells to tranquilise and then extract lions that have fallen in. I could hear some of the rescued lions moving in their curtained cages, but I was not allowed to see them lest I add to their trauma.

The fight to save the lions goes beyond providing facilities and staff. The GFD has built walls round thousands of open wells so that the lions do not fall in. It has fenced off many miles of railway lines after several lions were hit by trains, and introduced a 20km/h speed limit on one line – replete with hand-operated signals and points – that passes though the sanctuary. It seems that funding is no object either. Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister before becoming India’s Prime Minister in 2014, and the department is well provided for.

“As far as the lion is concerned, there is no issue. It’s difficult for us to spend the money,” explained Dr Suresh Pant, Gujarat’s chief wildlife warden – a statement to make environmentalists across the globe jealous. On the wall behind him hung a large photo of the lions above the caption ‘Gujarat’s Pride, World’s Envy!’ Indeed.

The lavish funding has a knock-on effect for visitors. Gir National Park severely limits the number of tourists that it admits each day, meaning crowds are minimal. Seeing lions in the sanctuary is by no means guaranteed, however, and I counted myself extremely lucky to have witnessed the small pride that I had.

Local pride

It’s not just the GFD the lions owe their resurgence to. Without the aid of the local people living in and around Gir, all the money in India wouldn’t have helped them survive. As vegetarians, the villagers hunt neither the lions nor the prey they eat. The beast also occupies a special place in the Hindu religion, as the animal on which the goddess Durga rides. More prosaically, the beasts scare away the nilgai, boars and deer that eat the farmers’ crops a benefit that the locals value.

Asiatic Lion in India (Shutterstock)
Asiatic Lion in India (Shutterstock)

Intrigued, I visited a ness, one of the basic settlements in which the few hundred maldharis who still live within the sanctuary reside, surviving by selling their animal’s milk and dung. There I met Karim, a 70-year-old woman with a leathery face and golden nose ring, who lived in a mud-walled hut with umpteen barefooted grandchildren, protected from Gir’s wildlife only by a thorn fence. She said that her husband had twice in his life been attacked by lions, both times when he was trying to protect his cattle, but insisted: “The lions are like gods. They need food.” She was much more afraid of the sanctuary’s many leopards, and one ten-year-old grandson still bore the scars of a recent leopard attack on his face and neck.

Villagers I spoke to outside the sanctuary expressed the same reverence towards the lions. They did not mind if they sometimes killed their cattle, though this is a poor area where camel carts still outnumber tractors. They will even leave old or weak cows out for them. “It’s their right. This is the lions’ land,” said Bhupat Babuy Bhuvva, whose village loses about four cows a month to attacks.

Once or twice a year, the lions even kill humans, but surprisingly the villagers excuse them even that. They have learned when to steer well clear – mainly when the lions are mating, hunting or having cubs. And they can read the warning signs too: the roar, the raised tail, the pawing at the ground. “Only when humans make mistakes do they get attacked,” team leader Rasila insisted.

Asiatic lions walking down road in Gujarat, India (Shutterstock)
Asiatic lions walking down road in Gujarat, India (Shutterstock)

An example of this was recounted to me by Chavinath Pandey, Suresh’s predecessor as Gujarat’s chief wildlife warden when we met later in the Nawab of Junagadh’s former hunting lodge, now the GFD’s guesthouse. It happened two years ago near Rajula – a lioness killed one drunken youth and injured another when they tried to take pictures of her two cubs on their mobiles. Chavinath went straight to the scene and met a female relative of the dead boy.

“She said the lioness was not at fault,” she recalled. “Our children were at fault. The villagers didn’t want the lioness taken away. I was amazed, and moved.”

What does dismay the villagers, however, is the death of a lion. When ten drowned in flash floods last summer, hundreds of locals gathered in the village of Krankach and prayed before garlanded photos of the lions, pledging never to let such a disaster happen again. In 2007, poachers from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh killed eight lions and there was uproar. Thousands of villagers staged demonstrations and joined the hunt for the perpetrators. “It was an issue that challenged their dignity. Here the lion is king,” said Dr Pant.

Thinking back to my encounter, the lions peacefully sleeping in Gir that afternoon, I rejoiced at a rare success in the usually bloody and depressing field of modern conservation. There are challenges ahead: the lions are likely to spread and the GFD will need to prepare hundreds of villages further away from Gir for their likely arrival. But with the park a success – and proof that people and lions can live in harmony with the right understanding – the future for this most majestic of big cats is bright, and that’s something that locals, rangers and visitors to Gujurat can all take pride in.

The author travelled with Ampersand Travel (020 7819 9770), which offers seven-night wildlife tours to Gujarat, including flights, accommodation in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Sasan Gir, and private guided safaris.

Main Image: Wild lion in the forest (Shutterstock)

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