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A study of royalty

Wildlife expert Ravi Chellam told an intriguing tale about the Asiatic Lion of the Gir Forest at a NatureQuest programme



Will the roar become a whimper? The Gir forest in Gujarat is the only habitat for the endangered Asiatic Lion

RAVI CHELLAM changes common and often erroneous perspectives on Nature's popular but least understood creation — the lion. Researching wildlife and working for its conservation in India since the early 1980s, Dr. Chellam has studied the endangered Asiatic Lion for his Ph.D., conducting field research for more than four years from 1986. Actively involved with the ecology of these endangered animals and their conservation — both in the Gir Forests and by translocation to establish a second free ranging population of lions in India.

Currently supervising students researching lions in Gir, avian communities and their relationships with the landscape in Central India and leopards in Satpura Tiger Reserve, Ravi was with the Wildlife Institute of India since 1985 and since November 2002 is on secondment to the United Nations Development Programme in New Delhi.

Recently in a programme organised by NatureQuest, he told an intriguing tale of the Asiatic Lion of the Gir Forests of Gujarat, among the greatest success stories of Indian conservation.

A victim of myths

Explaining how the onus shifted from the lion to the tiger, Dr. Chellam said, "The lion used to be India's National animal from 1952 to 1972. After the launch of Project Tiger, lions were kind of dethroned." Common myths also abound where lions are concerned. Referring to them, he says, "Many believe that tigers are wild while lions are not. Lions have a bad public image. They are considered lazy. That's because lions can be seen during the day — they hunt at night and sleep during the day.

Lions are more social than tigers and prefer open habitats, which make them more visible.

I think it is a privilege to see animals without disturbing them.

Don't think an animal is not wild just because it doesn't rush up to kill the moment it sees you. Animals always conserve energy and if they charge they really want to kill and eat."

Endangered future


Asiatic lions are more endangered than African lions because they are restricted to one site — the Gir forest, where about 350 animals can be found. The sanctuary was created not by design but by default from whatever forest was left in the 1950s.

Chellam says, "This is not the most ideal site for any wildlife preserve. A human dominated landscape means far greater interaction between people and animals which is unhealthy for both."

Uneasy relationship

The biggest conflict here is about water. There is a severe shortage especially during the dry months. The Maldaris, inhabitants of Gir, live in the surrounding settlements.

Their presence raises important questions in terms of conservation. People graze livestock in the forests, which also means over grazing. These settlements are usually close to water. Livestock diseases can contaminate the water and this may affect the prey of the lions if not the lions themselves. Now trucks are allowed to go in.

But the dust they raise and the exhaust fumes cause pollution. Also truck drivers often do not stop for animals crossing their path. Yet, till acceptable alternatives are found nothing can be done."

"Nearly 120 years later, all the lions of India are restricted to the Gir. We have all our eggs in one basket. A single political decision or disease can wipe out, in a matter of days, the conservation success gained over a hundred years. I am not trying to paint a doomsday picture but, in 1993, a canine distemper disease in the Serengeti spread over 25,000 miles saw 2,000 lions being infected and a thousand dying.

Imagine that happening in the restricted areas of the Gir — the entire population will be wiped out."

PAROMITA PAIN

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