As a young ecologist, although I was studying ecology, my idea of ecology was wildlife ecology. People did not appear important nor was I taught so. One of my first projects as a young researcher more than 20 years ago was at the Wildlife Institute of India in a project searching for an alternative site for the Asiatic Lion.
Representational image of an Asiatic lion © Kalyan Varma
We did surveys for the habitat and prey, travelling in an open jeep in the searing heat of the summer in Rajasthan and Gujarat. I thought it was as simple as that - we from an esteemed government institution tell the decision makers that site A was the best. Now, 20 years later, I realise we did not ask the people who share their land with the lions (and are supremely proud of it) whether they would like to share their lions. We did not ask the people at the site of the re-introduction if they would be fine with the presence of a large cat in their land.
Now, there is no doubt that the issue is more political than ecological. Almost everyone is lamenting about how Gujarat is being silly in not giving up its lions. The fact that the lions have expanded their range from within Gir (2000 sq km) to 10,000 sq km (most of this being human use landscape) is only due to the people of Gujarat (the farmers, the managers and the politicians).
It simply amazes me as this is the other extreme of shared spaces - where people actually want a large predator, that is social, lives in prides, in their midst. The movie "Wandering lions of India" by Praveen Singh ends by showing a pride of lions resting and a group of farmers armed with no more than their sticks, also asleep, not more than 50 m away. This pretty much sums up the story of the Lions of India.
I wish I had an insight into why the Gujaratis like their lions so much. They don’t show as much love for the leopards. There was a story in the paper once of how a trap cage set up to catch a leopard (much smaller than lions but no different) caught a lion. This young male had even been named by the people and when they saw him inside, they opened the doors of the cage and released him there itself.
If a leopard had been caught, he would have been taken miles from his home and released elsewhere. Same cat, different skin and a different way of looking at them by the local people.
If at all Gujarat wanted to give its lions, this would have been the time, with the same political party in the two states as well as at the centre. The better way ahead would be to stop ignoring the politics of the situation and come up with other solutions. To me, only if we accept that people of Gujarat do not want to share their lions, can we possibly figure out other ways of ensuring greater chances of their survival within Gujarat itself, until the lions themselves walk into the neighbouring states a few decades down the line.
Written by Dr Vidya Athreya