Their enthusiasm to volunteer is spurred by lion-hearted pride; they are dogged in their devotion to Gujarat’s big cats and humbled by their responsibility to conserve the species. They are the common people of the state, members of communities whose work is vital for the survival of Asiatic lions in Gir. It is mainly their efforts which have led to the species being classed as ‘endangered’, from the earlier category of ‘critically endangered’, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
These local volunteers have intensified efforts to protect the Gir icons from September-end, when canine distemper virus (CDV) and babesiosis began ravaging the lion population. So far, 23 lions have died. According to the May 2015 census, the state had 523 lions. However, in July this year, Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani had announced that the figure had touched 600; the number is yet to be confirmed by a formal count.
But for Babu Dhola, a trustee of Jab Gaushala in Gir, even an attrition of one is a horror. His vigilance in monitoring the well-being of a pride living near his village had revealed something amiss. Subsequently, he was the one who set off the first alarm about a disease outbreak hitting the lions. “On September 10, one of my employees spotted a weak lioness. I instructed my employees to keep a watch on the 29-member pride, who were the first victims of the viral epidemic. We had accompanied forest officials in their rescue missions. However, we could save only three,” he says.
The bond that Gir villagers feel for the lions is exemplified by the sentiments of Lakha Gadhvi, the vice-president of the Gir Maldhari Samaj, a body of representatives from the pastoral communities here. “The lions rule this land and are its first inhabitants. They have rights over our cattle. They are part of our family and we exist because of them,” he says. Gadhvi and hundreds of pastoralists had gathered in Visavadar for a ‘besna’ (mourning) organised in memory of the 23 dead lions. “More than half of our community members never claim compensation when their cattle are eaten by lions. Our people are rarely attacked by lions,” he says. The crisis in Gir drove two medical practitioners, Purvesh Kacha and Jalpan Rupapara, 100km from their home in Amreli to Sasan, where they are assisting the forest department in removing misconceptions about CDV and babesiosis. “In some villages, people feared that CDV will spread to them. We were apprehensive that social media rumours would harm conservation efforts and undertook a mass awareness drive,” Rupapara says.
Razak Baloch, founder of a non-governmental organization called Environment Protection Committee had apprised the range forest officers of a looming epidemic. Eventually, six lions died in quick succession at Sarasiya Virdi area. “We had first raised public awareness on the mysterious deaths of lions and then took to the street to put pressure on the forest department officials to act fast,” he says.
Apart from individuals and NGOs, a number of villages provided ‘health reports’ and details on the whereabouts of lions to forests officials during the crisis. Chief conservator of forests D.T. Vasavada cites the example of Liliya village in Kakarach area. Villagers informed forest department of a sick lioness named Rajmata. “A wildlife enthusiast, Manoj Joshi, from village informed us of the lioness who had septic wound near its tail. She was given treatment on time. Joshi also informed us of a missing cub and we have begun a search operation,” Vasavada says. (Times of India)