The Lion’s Last Walk

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 30 No. 8, August 2010

It was past midnight and the moon was bright in the sky as I drove slowly along the dirt track in the company of Manubhai and Malik. Suddenly, a terrible stench came upon us, probably from a dead carcass close to the dirt track. Asking the driver to slow down, we scanned the edges of the road searching for a kill. Visibility reduced just to the area lit by the vehicle headlamp and two weak, hand-held torches, we found nothing. Then, a few moments later, Malik’s torch caught a movement three or four metres off the shoulder of the road ahead. I too shone the beam on it and from the dark a leopard materialised, dragging a carcass across a small clearing.

Seeing us, the leopard crouched near its kill for a few nervous seconds before turning and disappearing into the thicket some seven or eight metres behind its prize. It was a male and looked in its prime.

Its prey, which had now been virtually reduced to bones, was an adult male spotted deer, or chital. The kill had been made almost a day ago.

Knowing the male would return and drag its unfinished prize to safety I hurriedly entered the information on my data sheet and asked the driver to reverse to a distance of around 10 m. Here we sat, in the dark and maintained pin-drop silence. Ten minutes went by and, eyes now acclimatised to the dark; the outline of the kill was visible in monochrome.

This is when a movement 40-50 m. ahead caught my eye. In the moonlight a vague shape soon took the form of a massive male lion walking slowly towards us. The continued rustle, close to us, confirmed that the leopard was still unaware of the lion’s presence.
The larger cat was now walking faster, purposefully towards us, on the road. I thought it would make for the carcass to grab an easy meal, but it chose instead to dash in the direction of the leopard!

We could see none of the drama, but the series of sounds that followed, clearly suggested that the leopard had sighted the lion in the nick of time and made good its escape. The guttural snarls that followed indicated that the lion had chased the leopard deep into the forest. Five minutes of relative silence followed before we heard the rustle of a heavy-bodied animal approaching us. It was the lion and it reappeared alongside the road close to the chital carcass, which it instantly picked up from the neck and then melted like a ghost into the darkness.

We remained where we were for a few minutes, before moving on. I was awestruck as were my three companions, who had spent the greater portion of their lives at the Gir National Park. Few people had ever witnessed this kind of interaction between two of the greatest large carnivores on planet Earth!

We had just left Kankai and were on our way to the Kamleshwar dam for a welcome two-hour nap inside the vehicle, our second home! I was at Gir as an independent monitor for the 2010 Asiatic Lion Population Estimation Exercise and had already spent the better part of two days driving hundreds of kilometres through Gir and its adjacent forests. Manubhai was a senior forester and Malik, one of Gir’s legendary ‘trackers’.

Livestock depredation (above) is a flash point of conflict between the Forest Department and pastoral communities residing in nesses inside and in villages on the periphery of Gir. Prompt and fair compensation for livestock kills are vital to prevent the poisoning of lions and leopards. The record of the Gir authorities has thus far been good, as exemplified by their success in nurturing the population of the Gir lion (top) across the Gir landscape. Photo: Anish Andheria.


It has been three months since that incident and I am back in Mumbai, working at the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) whose mandate includes strengthening the protection mechanism of important national parks and sanctuaries across India.

The intensive estimation exercise carried out in April 2010 reveals a lion population of 411 individuals – an all time high since the late 19th century (See graph below and also Sanctuary Vol. II No. 4, October/December 1982).

As India struggles hard to rescue both her natural resources and the rapidly-dwindling tiger population from an imminent catastrophe, the success story of the Asiatic lion provides a rare and unique conservation lesson to many state governments and Forest Departments.

The reason becomes apparent when one looks at the history of the lion in India – the story starts when the lion entered the Indian subcontinent between the latter part of the 3rd millennium BCE (Before Current Era) to the end of the 2nd millennium BCE after the Aryans’ settlement in the Indus valley and subsequently moved to the north and west of India between 1500 to 600 BCE. Initially, the lion population must have grown unhindered in habitats that were perfectly suited to them. At one point, lions were well distributed from Asia Minor and Arabia through Persia to India and it seemed that they were here to stay. But indiscriminate hunting, conflict with humans and habitat degradation, which coincided with a massive increase in human population and the clearing of forests and grasslands for agriculture changed things. This was combined by the penchant of humans to kill lions as sport. By around 1870, the lions were eradicated from their traditional range – Bihar, Delhi, Bhavalpur, Eastern Vindhyas and Bundelkhand, Central India and Rajasthan and western Aravallis. By the 1880s, it was believed that as few as 12 individuals remained in the wild in Gir. This is when the Nawab of Junagadh stepped in as did the British Administration. Post-Independence, shikar was stopped and the Gujarat Forest Department declared the Gir surrounds protected. The lion was then India’s national animal and the political will to protect it helped the species to be brought back from the brink.

In recent years, a steady increase in lions has become the order of the day. While this is an ideal situation for a park manager to be in, it is not necessarily the easiest to handle, especially when lack of space and degraded habitats outside the core area happen to be major limiting factors.

The steady rise in Gujarat’s Asiatic lion population, which until now was viewed as a phenomenal success story, could easily prove to be a debacle if future conservation plans based on solid science are not firmly in place. It does seem, however, that the lions are scripting their own plans for survival.

The increase in the lion population in a ‘forest’ that cannot expand has caused several prides to occupy areas way beyond the 1,883 sq. km. area set aside as the Gir Protected Area (see map on page 49). Today, we see lions in adjoining areas such as the Mitiyala Wildlife Sanctuary (35 sq. km.), Paniya and and Girnar  Wildlife Sanctuaries (180 sq. km.) and even in the revenue and coastal forests of Junagadh, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts that spread across 17 talukas of Saurashtra covering an astonishing 10,000 sq. km. (see the map and table on page 49)!

In other words, Asiatic lions, supported by the people of Gujarat who take great pride in their well being, have begun reclaiming sites they were forced to vacate as long as 130 years ago. As of today 25 per cent of all wild Asiatic lions live outside the Gir Protected Area (Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary).


One of the most contentious conservation issues in recent times has been that of translocation of a small population of lions from Gir in Gujarat to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Those who advocate the idea wish to create a disjointed lion population outside Gir, insulated from any potential disease outbreak such as canine distemper, rabies, anthrax and feline leukemia that could potentially wipe out a large chunk, or, as some suggest, all the lions of Gir.

While several scientists believe that Kuno is ready to accept lions as far as prey and human density goes, the Gujarat government is openly skeptical. They feel that the long-term survival of the lion in an area that has no social acceptance for a large carnivore is risky. In Gujarat, they point out that people willingly share their backyards with lions. Other arguments put forward against the second home idea are:

1. Though several villages have been resettled outside Kuno, the periphery is still dotted by innumerable villages with large livestock holdings. Will such people tolerate cattle lifting by lions?
2. Ranthambhore’s proximity to Kuno could potentially cause tiger-lion conflict, especially during the monsoon when dense undergrowth improves connectivity. Historically lions and tigers have not been able to co-exist and also there is a possibility that the social habits of the lion could end up displacing the tiger.

This issue is destined to be debated for quite some time. It makes good sense in the meanwhile for scientific bodies such as the Wildlife Institute of India and also the Gujarat Forest Department and carnivore experts to look at optional strategies to secure the future of the Gir lions where they are today. For this it is the biological requirement of the lions that must be paramount and policies in Gujarat must revolve around protecting them in perpetuity. Towards this end alternative, viable sites within Gujarat must also be created where a small percentage of lions can be quarantined in case of a disease outbreak.

As we have noticed, the lion itself has precipitated human conservation action by translocating themselves out of the Gir PA. This is the time then for the Gujarat Forest Department to revisit all past management plans, strategies and monitoring protocols so that the migration pathways of the lions are mapped meticulously and protected vigorously. Going by what the lions are trying to tell us – the most potential amongst the newly occupied areas seem to be the ones that have over 10 breeding adults and are the farthest from the Gir PA. These areas need to be secured and instantly declared as sanctuaries or national parks, with adequate buffers. Where existing PAs touch such habitats, villages must be motivated to voluntarily resettle away from the periphery. This is easier said than done, but in my view there is virtually nothing that the people of Gujarat cannot do to protect the lions if they put their minds to it. And securing the future of this charismatic, large-hearted carnivore is certainly a part of Gujarati pride.

Courtesy: Gujarat Forest Department.


We need to survey all recent migration pathways, which will give us insights into the geography of lion migration in the years to come. All existing lion-occupied territories that need extra conservation must be provided the resources and manpower to achieve this objective quickly. Working with the Gujarat Forest Department, wildlife and conservation biologists must design future Protected Areas that possess all the ingredients for long-term survival including adequate size, shape, water availability, prey base and minimal human disturbance. This latter point is crucial. Poaching or livestock pressures could easily unsettle the best made plans. Research conducted by the Forest Department on the diet of lions indicates that livestock constitutes nearly 45 per cent of the diet of lions residing outside Protected Areas and a maximum of 25 per cent of the diet of lions inside the Gir PA!  

Given the predilection of the lions for moving considerable distances from their source populations, future plans must incorporate the preparation of large buffer areas where humans are sensitised to lion behaviour and survival imperatives.

The strategic corridors along the migration pathways that connect these new satellite lion populations (the sinks) with the Gir Protected Area (the source) should be monitored closely. In case of emergency it should be made possible to block (temporarily) the movement of the lions across these relatively thin strips so that we can quarantine the smaller wild lion populations to ward off the possibility of infection from lethal diseases/epidemics that could affect them through the source population or vice versa.

Having said this, it is vital that dedicated teams of doctors and epidemiologists are in place so that both the source and sink lion populations are monitored and safe around the clock. And when any problem arises, the key is to have protocols in place for instant remedial measures to protect livestock, wild prey and carnivores including lions. At a macro level, we also need well-trained rapid-response teams in place to mitigate man-animal conflicts in the emerging lion-occupied habitats so that today’s local community support does not diminish. No matter how sacrosanct a Protected Area is, long-term conservation must depend on community support. In this light, lion or tiger conservation is less about lions and tigers and more about managing humans in the landscapes they dominate. Those fighting for the survival of forests and wildlife must accept that humans will eventually do what benefits humans most. No policy that alienates humans permanently can hope to serve wildlife in the long run.

In a rapidly degrading environment, wildlife conservation, especially of large carnivores, requires out-of-the-box solutions. Pure protectionism has not worked, as evidenced by the decline of tigers. Why should we presume that it will work in the more difficult days ahead?

The resilience of Panthera leo persica and the conservation success of the Gujarat Forest Department combined with the regard in which the people of Gujarat hold the Gir lion are a symbol of conservation attitudes not just for India but the entire planet.

Apart from harbouring the last viable population of the Asiatic lion, the Gir Protected Area forms the catchment of seven perennial rivers including the Hiran, Saraswati, Datardi, Shingoda (above), Machhundri, Ghodavadi and Raval. Photo: Anish Andheria.


The 13th Asiatic Lion Population Estimation exercise was conducted using the Direct Beat Verification Method to observe and count every single animal (and eliminate over- or under-estimation of any sorts). Summer was chosen for the exercise as during this season lions are localised around natural or man-made water sources and are easily sighted. A ‘beat’ was chosen as the minimum geographical unit¬ inside the Gir Sanctuary and National Park while a ‘cluster of villages’ was taken as a minimum unit outside the Gir Protected Area. Before the exercise all participating officers and volunteers were divided into regional, zonal and sub-zonal teams based on their familiarity of the study sites. Several meetings in the respective zones and a final briefing for all participants at the Sasan Forest Department office were arranged before the exercise. The survey team which constituted of at least one Forest Department personnel (beat/block/village observer) and two experienced volunteer assistants from across Gujarat carried out the exercise on April 24 and 26 for 24 hour periods each. Lions were tracked on foot based on indirect evidences (such as pugmarks, fresh scat, sounds of lions, alarm calls of prey species, etc.). Waterholes, kills and known resting places were visited. The observers recorded age (adult, sub-adult and cub) and sex of individual animals; size of the pride, type of activity, position and type of scars and other identification marks on every individual; date, time, location, name of the observers and so on. They also marked the location of observation and direction of movement of the animal or group on the beat map. Sub-zonal, zonal and regional level officers supervised the work of observers and ensured that the essential elements of this method were adequately fulfilled.
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