Gitanjali Bhattacharya, ZSL London Zoo
In places, living alongside animals is unavoidable, which can cause people and animals to come into conflict with each other. But there are some success stories. India, one of the most densely populated countries in the world has hundreds of Asiatic lions living very closely with people in an area called the Gir Forest. And apparently, this causes no conflict. To find out why, Georgia Mills hopped over to ZSL London Zoo, who are working closely with the people of the Gir to conserve these lions…
Gitanjali - I’m Gitanjali Bhattacharya and I’m the programme manager for South and Central Asia at the Zoological Society for London. This is the high street from Sasan Gir which we have recreated, so you’ve got a little snapshot of what life would be like to live really close to the edge of Gir forest in very close proximity to lions.
Georgia - It is a bit like stepping abroad for a second. There’s sort of a market stall with loads of sandals, there’s a mural with a painting of a lion, and then right next to us (well, behind glass) is where the lions live. All very unlike what I’m used to at the zoo.
Gitanjali - It’s a very immersive exhibit and we’ve taken elements right from the conservation project and had teams come back and visit us in the Gir and taken snippets of it. So right here where we are standing is essentially the station platform, and for those of us who’ve been out there, essentially it’s like being on the station platform in Sasan.
Georgia - Having lions roaming around the train station is not something I’ve ever really thought about on my commute to work. But having an enormous predator as a next door neighbour is a reality for people in many parts of the world. Lions are living closer to farmland than ever before which leaves farmers at risk of having their livestock killed and the lions at risk of being shot in retaliation. But apparently this conflict does not occur in the Gir, so what’s going on in this patch of India that’s so different.
Gitanjali - For me the Asiatic Lion story is is one of the greatest success stories for carnivore conservation anywhere in the world. We often hear about lions coming into conflict with humans in Africa and also big carnivores coming into conflict (even tigers) coming into conflict with humans in India. Whereas for these lions you have a local community in and around these areas that revere and worship the lions in their midst. You’ve got a very committed government that’s doing everything it can to protect these lions.
Georgia - You mentioned respect. They have respect for these lions but respect alone isn’t enough to stop a lion from eating you or stealing your crops, so what else is going on here to keep this working?
Gitanjali - You have local communities that can tell lion behaviour very closely just from observing them. Just a flick of a tail or just the way that a lioness may look up. The local community knows when the lion or lioness last hunted so they’re very, very attuned to the ecology of the species. And what they do is they put their most productive livestock into the centre of this herd and put their unproductive cattle on the outside, essentially surrounding this, and that basically avoids conflict because they accept the fact that they’re going to lose some heads of livestock, but it is their most unproductive livestock and, therefore, you avoid the situation of conflict.
Georgia - Talking with Gitanjali there were two words that kept coming up - special and unique. And the relationship the locals have with the lions, a spiritual and religious one, is special, it’s not seen elsewhere in the world really but it has a key part to play in this lack of conflict. So can this really be a conservation success story if it can’t be replicated elsewhere? Well the lions in the Gir may be an exception to the norm but Gitanjali feels that key lessons like working with local communities and education can be applied elsewhere…
Gitanjali - There’s also daily lessons that we’re learning in terms of rescue and rehabilitation of large cats. Leopards are a big issue around this area. So the lessons that we learn from the rescue and rehabilitation and movement of these large carnivores, lions and leopards included, are lessons that we’re taking to the conservation projects that we do in other parts of the world, particularly in South Asia, which have a very similar cultural context.
Georgia - Whether these lions are a conservation anomaly or not, I still wanted to see one so we went on the hunt…
I can spot a lion. We’ve come through the high street under the temple looking bit and we’ve just approached a beautiful golden-brown lioness prowling the territory. Who’s this?
Gitanjali - So this is Heidi here who’s one of our oldest lionesses and there’s two twins, Indi and Ruby, who you can hear.
Georgia - Is that them roaring?
Gitanjali - Yes.
Georgia - That fantastic! I don’t think I’ve heard a lion roar before, so I’m very happy.
Gitanjali - Well you can hear lions roaring from about 5 kilometers away so it’s quite a powerful sound and I think you can sort of hear it echoing in your chest. So very, very, special sound indeed. You cannot help but be amazed by the fact that you’re just standing so close to a large predator.
Georgia - Predator indeed, seeing this lion up close really hammered it home that this was an animal you really wouldn’t want to mess with, and while I was safe behind glass, that is not the case for the people who live in the Gir forest…
Gitanjali - So this is one of the Malhari huts and these are the people that live in the forest and I just find it astonishing how close some of these children get to Asiatic Lions. I know if my six year old got anywhere that close to lions I would be terrified.
Georgia - And there you have it. These lions can kill people so what if the worst happens, how do you reconcile the need to save these animals from extinction against a human life? Again, these lines to be something of an anomaly.
Gitanjali - It’s a really interesting story in the Gir and, actually, you have to be there to be able to imbibe the culture of the people as well as to be able to understand the deep and enormous amount of respect that they have for these large predators. I have been in Gutrath when there have been instances of a 25 year old being killed and the chief wildlife warden got called and out and he went instantly. There was a huge media frenzy around somebody so young being killed by a lioness and it was actually extraordinary, given the fact that somebody so young had died, that the people in the community were averse to this lioness being removed from their field, from within them, because the lioness had had cubs and the local community felt very much a sense that it belonged to their community, and essentially protested against this lioness being moved just because somebody had come too close to it and didn’t respect the boundaries that they believe in.