• Monday, May 27, 2024

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Why India’s Gir lions are heading for beaches from jungles

Spotting lions in coastal zones is not something unprecedented as they have been found adapting to the beach in the African nation of Namibia but it is a rare sight in India, said a wildlife expert.

This picture taken on January 7, 2021 shows lion cubs in their open enclosure at the Sakkarbaug Zoological Garden, which takes part in a captive breeding programme for endangered Asiatic lions, in Junagadh, some 320 kilometers from Ahmedabad. – An outbreak of a deadly viral disease among Asiatic lions in India’s Gir forest is keeping conservationists on their toes amid fears that another epidemic could devastate the last surviving population of the endangered species. (Photo by SAM PANTHAKY / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY INDIA-ANIMAL-CONSERVATION-HEALTH-LIONS,FEATURE BY ABHAYA SRIVASTAVA (Photo by SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Shubham Ghosh

They were once facing extinction until a nawab in the western Indian state of Gujarat intervened and it became their only home. But today, the Asiatic lion is facing a challenge which is the exact opposite and that is forcing it to explore new habitats, like the seaside.

While most of the nearly 700 animals counted three years ago are found in the dry and deciduous terrain of Gujarat’s Gir forest and the surrounding areas that are protected, many have moved to the beaches, The Guardian reported. The number of lions living along Gujarat’s coast rose from 20 to 104 between 2010 and 2020, and as per forest officials in Gujarat, coastal habitats have become the most significant of all satellite habitats that the predators occupy.

Spotting lions in coastal zones is not something unprecedented as they have been found adapting to the beach in the African nation of Namibia and hunting seals but it is a rare sight in India, wildlife expert Meena Venkataraman told the news outlet.

“Lions using the sandy beach and walking at the edge of the sea is an incredible sight. I have had the good luck to see that a few times,” Venkataraman, principal consultant at Carnivore Conservation and Research in the western city of Mumbai, was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

In November last year, researchers from the forest department of Gujarat released findings from the first study undertaken on coastal Asiatic Lions, the report added. They monitored 10 animals fitted with GPS radio collars between 2019 and 2021. They were trying to understand the kind of habitats the coastal lions were using, Mohan Ram, deputy conservator of forests in Gir and lead author of the study, said.

Venkataraman, who was also part of the study, told The Guardian that the answers they got were surprising.

“They shelter in the prosopis plantations in the western coasts [of Gujarat]. These are very thick and very thorny habitats,” she was quoted as saying by the publication. She also said that it was not something common because the lion is believed to be a more “open area” animal.

The researchers of the study also compared the characteristics of the dispersing lions to their counterparts in Gir. According to Venkataraman, the home ranges of the two groups were found to be different. She said those animals living in the coastal habitats had bigger home ranges (where they usually roam) than the ones living in Gir’s protected areas. And those lions that lived between the forest and coastal areas or the “link lions”, were found to have even bigger home ranges.

While the lions in Gujarat do not feed on marine animals like their counterparts in Namibia, Venkataraman said they might develop a taste for dead fish. In 2020, there were reports of a lion praying on a turtle. According to Ram, forest officials were studying the coastal lions’ food habits and pattern of hunting.

But the movement of the lions to Gujarat’s coast is more of a “recolonisation of their lost territories”, according to Kausik Banerjee, a wildlife researcher. But the animals’ presence on the beach also suggests that there is a bigger problem of limited space as their numbers multiply.

Banerjee told The Guardian that the protected areas of Gir (around 1,880 square kilometres) have already touched its biological carrying capacity for lions.

Officials in Gujarat recently unveiled plans for a second home for the growing number of Asiatic lions in the state’s Barda wildlife sanctuary, located about 100 kilometres from Gir. The Indian government is also reassessing a plan to relocate some of the lions to Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat’s eastern neighbour. A decade ago, the Supreme Court of India sought the relocation but nothing materialised and according to some experts, Gujarat has been reluctant to alienate lions of which it is very proud.

Concern is also growing over human-lion conflict as the animals move outside their protected areas, according Banerjee and he said it amid sporadic reports of lions targeting humans. They also kill livestocks at times but farmers get compensation in such cases.

Gujarat’s lions are revered by the local communities and while Banerjee feels it has made the animal-human co-existence possible, Venkataraman cautioned that rise in population makes lion-human conflict a problem but it is also a problem which is happening with wild animals across the world.

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