Jaga Karamta of Resamiya village has stopped taking his buffaloes and cows out for grazing before dawn. (Express photo: Javed Raja)
At a roadside tea stall in Chobari village on State Highway 119 in Chotila taluka of Surendranagar district, a buffalo calf harnessed in one corner looks out of place. The animal panics whenever a heavy vehicle passes by.
Across the hilly terrain, in Rajapara village, Galal Dudhrejiya and her daughter are busy cutting thorny bushes and dragging them to the place where their three buffaloes, two cows and a pair of bullocks are harnessed on their agricultural field of cotton ready for harvest.
In nearby Resamiya village, Jaga Karamta, a maldhari (cattle-herder) is having his breakfast at noon, having spent the morning hours keeping a close watch on his 10 buffaloes and a cow grazing in Sarkariyo Dungar.
At Kasgala Ness, a settlement of maldharis, in Vidiyo Dungar area near Kabran village, Bhikha Boliya is checking his newly-installed solar lights as the sun sets.
The lives of the maldharis and animals — wild and domestic — have seen unforseen changes in around 16 villages of Chotila taluka where two Asiatic lions have been camping for five weeks. The cattle-herders spend sleepless nights and graze their livestock only after sunrise under constant watch. They light up the front and back yards of their houses and secure their cattle with walls of thorny branches.
The carnivores, after being on the move for a week since they left their habitat in Amreli district around 100km south, seem to have settled in the scenic landscape spread over 25,000 hectares — replete with green hillocks, where livestock and wild ungulates graze, high ranges and streams — across 16 idyllic villages, say forest officers.
The topography and ecology is strikingly similar to greater Gir area, the last abode of Asiatic lions in the world, spread across Junagadh, Amreli, Gir Somnath and Bhavnagar districts in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region. Just like some parts of greater Gir area, the terrain in Chotila range of Surendranagar territorial forest division is hilly, rich in grass which supports a good number of herbivores, riverine patches with vegetation, nesses (colonies or settlements) of cattle-herders and a smattering of agricultural fields around villages. The taluka has over 100 villages.
The ongoing adventure of the two sub-adult male Asiatic lions has kept Gujarat forest department working day and night, enthused wildlife lovers and has villagers excited yet concerned, about the return of the lions to these parts after nearly 150 years. Generations of human inhabitants and livestock of the area had never seen the Jungle Kings in their backyards, say experts.
As per the lion census of 2015, there were 523 lions in Gujarat of which 310 were adults, 73 sub-adults and 140 cubs. Of the total, 167 lions were found outside the protected areas. The next census is due in 2020, and foresters say the lion population could easily cross 650 by then.
The forest and environment department of Gujarat announced a slew of measures in December 2018 after an outbreak of Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) claimed 17 lions in Gir in September. It included satellite-tagging of lions to monitor their movement pattern, setting up of modern veterinary hospitals and promoting research to strengthen the lion conservation efforts.
Asiatic lions that once ranged from Persia to Palamau in eastern India were almost driven to extinction by indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss. By the late 1890s, there was a single population of less than 50 lions remaining in the Gir forests of Gujarat.
During the 2015 census, Jungadh district recorded the maximum lions at 210, followed by Amreli at 174, Gir Somnath, 44 and Bhavnagar 37. Therefore, the five-week-long stay of this pair in Surendranagar district is being viewed with interest, even as an average of 90 lion deaths were recorded annually over the past five years.
Amba Nangani who runs the highway tea stall in Chobari village along with her husband Virji, says, “One morning, our neighbour Valubhai Nangani told us that he heard lions roar in Datarvalo Dhado forest on the border of his field while he was irrigating his crop at night.Then we heard people saying that forest officers had advised to keep lamps on at night and keep livestock indoors. Since our cattleshed is not a gated structure, we started harnessing our buffalo on the roadside assuming lions would not come here due to movement of vehicles and lights.” Behind their stall-cum-residence is two acres of their agricultural land skirting the reserved forest area of the Datarvalo Dhado range.
“Better safe than sorry. We installed three more bulbs to keep our place well-lit throughout the night hoping it would keep lions away,” 60-year-old Virji, who studied till Class V, says.