Gir is known to host the royal king of the jungle in their natural habitat. Here is an encapsulation of how lions at Gir Forest survived due to the efforts of the Nawabs.
If someone asks you where to spot the Asiatic lions, Gir National Park is the first name that comes to mind. Also known as Sasan Gir, it is a forest, national park, and wildlife sanctuary in Gujarat. It is home to over 350 lions making it the only place in the world where the last remaining population of this species can be observed in its natural habitat outside of Africa. Let's explore how lions at Gir Forest have thrived in their environment.
Gir Forest is home to about 40 species of mammals and 425 species of birds but what outshines in this dense forest is the roar of a lion. This forest is situated near Talala Gir about 65 km from the Junaghad District in Gujarat. It covers a total area of 1412 square km of which 258 km forms the core area of the National Park.
But How Did Gir become the home for the Lions?
Asiatic Lions, classified as Panthera Leo, were once widespread throughout Asia. However, extensive hunting and poaching drastically reduced their population. In India, they were even hunted by Maharajas under the belief that they embodied the incarnation of Lord Vishnu - Narasimha. During the late 19th century, British officers also engaged in lion hunting as a sport. These activities led to their extinction in various parts of India, including Jharkhand, Eastern and Northern Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, leaving South Kathiawad in Junagadh as their last refuge. Junagadh was among the first states to enact conservation laws for animals and birds, becoming a stronghold for lion preservation.
The Nawabs of Junagadh recognized the decline of the Asiatic lion population and took steps to conserve the species before it disappeared from India. The sixth Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat Khan, was determined to prevent this loss due to his deep love for animals. He implemented stringent hunting laws in his province, receiving assistance from Lord Sandhurst, the then-Governor of Bombay. The Nawabs worked tirelessly to protect the lions, but despite their efforts, it was challenging to completely eliminate killings. By the time the rule of the Nawabs came to an end, only around 177 lions remained out of the original 286, between the years 1963 and 1968.
Beginning of a New Era
Following the launch of the Wildlife Conservation Program by the Indian Forest Department in 1965, a dedicated area was established to protect the Asiatic Lions, and the Gir forest was designated as a wildlife sanctuary. Through continuous efforts by the government and the forest department, the lion population experienced a significant increase from 177 in 1968 to 359 in 2005. As a result, Gir became the sole location in Asia where lions could be found in their natural habitat.
How are they conserved?
Currently, there are seven rivers—Hiran, Shetrunji, Dhatarvadi, Shingoda, Machhundri, Ambajal, and Raval—and four dams that provide ample water for them. Breeding programs and centers have been established to safeguard the lions during their gestation period. The Sakkarbaug Zoo in this area is one such center where approximately 180 cubs have been born to date. Additionally, there are more than 40 women van raksha sahayaks, who work in conjunction with the forest department to protect the park's animals. Gir truly stands as a secure haven for this endangered lion species.