Gujarat to take stock of Gir lions

Forest officials gear for lion census with GPS and GIS technology

By Samkit J Gandhinagar

The Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat will be off limits for visitors for three days starting April 25 when forest officers, enumerators and photographers will fan out in the area to count lions. The census exercise is conducted every five years, but this time the methods adopted to ascertain the Asiatic lion population will be different. The forest department will be using global positioning system (GPS) and geographical information system (GIS) to record lion sightings. Officials said the census count will be more scientific this time and give better estimate of the lion population which was 359 last time.

Instead of counting pugmarks, direct sighting method will be employed where body marks will be used to identify a lion, said Pradip Khanna, principal chief conservator of forests. “Each animal has a distinct body mark like a scar on the torso or a mark on the tail. This method of identification coupled with technology, we believe, is going to be very effective in enumerating the lions,” Khanna said.

All sightings will be captured on digital camera and every sighting will be uploaded on a gps device that each team will have. The uploaded information will be mapped and data will be tallied to remove duplication. The sightings are expected around water bodies where lion prides tend to hang out in summers. The heat also restricts the movement of prides which makes the forest department's job easier.

The census process has been divided into three parts. On the first day 300 teams will spread out over 5,000 sq km to search and record lion pride sightings over a period of 24 hours; the area has been divided into beats and each team is allocated one beat to cover. The teams will return to the base at Sasan where the data collected by each team will be pooled and tallied. On the third day, the teams will record sightings again and repeat the exercise. The principal chief conservator said the census is only an estimate, not a watertight figure. Over 1,600 persons comprising forest beat guards, labourers, local people, wildlife researchers and senior officials are taking part in the census exercise.

Chief minister Narendra Modi is expected to announce the census results on May 1 in Gandhinagar. The census this year is significant for another reason. It is not just restricted to the 1,412 sq km of Gir Wildlife Sanctuary but covers the Greater Gir area around it which includes four districts—Junagadh, Amreli, Bhavnagar and Porbandar. The inclusion of Greater Gir, comprising unprotected revenue land, amounts to acknowledging the presence of lions outside the sanctuary, said experts who added Gir's carrying capacity for lions is just 270.

The latest figures released by the government in the Gujarat assembly in March also confirms this. It reported 42 lion attacks on humans in the past one year in Junagadh district alone; one person was killed. In Amreli district, 220 incidents of lion attacks on livestock were reported. “Lions roam in five districts of Saurashtra and we can now confidently say that they have established their territory in at least four of them,” said Divyabhanusinh Chavada, a member of the National Board for Wildlife in India. He said the lions “are not exploring new areas but only reclaiming their traditional corridor where they thrived for centuries before humans took their habitat away.”