The Last Refuge – A story of the Asiatic Lions at the Gir Forest

Published on 05/10/2011

First Update 16/03/2017

It was a hot sweltering summer of May when we reached the Gir National Park to film the Lions of Gir. We roamed the forest for three days on predetermined routes without luck. The pressure was mounting and so were the costs. On one of these days we did see some pugmarks along with human footprints and tyre marks, an indication of a harmony and cohabitation which would only reveal itself in the days to come.

Spotted Deer at Gir – Dr. Yashpal Singh

Despite the disappointment of not sighting the Lion on the first three days, we enjoyed the forest – a forest which was very beautiful, dry and brown with leaves strewn all over. We were told that the forest is as old as 3000 years and there are people living inside the forest whose heritage is almost 1000 years old. We were enjoying this vista, but with a very low budget and no sign of the Lion yet, my patience wanted to leave me. I had definitely come with a purpose.

As our eyes scanned the woods within we suddenly noticed a movement some distance away. A small group of the spotted and swamp deer was trying to move across very cautiously. The tails were erect and the forelimbs were thumping the ground. We heard a small shrill call also. I had noticed this behavior earlier – an alarm response in danger. I was excited. The animals had sensed danger.

And then we saw it. I was awe struck.

A critically endangered species which survives in the wild only in the Gir Forest and adjoining area of Gujarat, the Asiatic Lion branched out some 100 thousand years ago from the African stock. It entered India some 40000 years ago after establishing territories ranging from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Greece, Afghanistan and Pakistan but gradually disappeared. The last specimen in Pakistan died in 1842 and after the middle of the nineteenth century, the entire species was wiped out except in India where only 12 lions were left in 1880.

Asiatic Lion – Dr. Yashpal Singh

The arid and dry deserts of western India have kept herders constantly on the move in search of fodder and good pastures. Intensification of agriculture in surrounding areas pushed these nomads into the forests where they started building permanent settlements. Some were also forced to settle in the wilderness by the local inhabitants. These came to be known as the Maldharis or the owners of cattle. Their history inside the forest is almost 300 years old.

They are a set of very beautiful people with sharp features following the hindu religion. They are worshippers of Lord Krishna.

The main income of the Maldharis is from sale of milk. They are the oldest group engaged in cattle rearing and consider themselves as the protectors of the forest. The herds mainly consist of buffaloes, some cows and a few camels. The absence of land ownership encourages maldharis to move from place to place within the forest. The Maldharis generated considerable income from grazing rights and the sale of milk for the state of Junagarh. They were provided more facilities and allowed to graze more extensively in the forest. Initially there was plenty of water and fodder but with the increasing number of livestock this exerted an adverse impact on the forest resources.

Maldharis – Dr. Yashpal Singh

The Maldharis reside in small clusters of huts made of mud, teakwood, dried leaves and thatch. These clusters are called nesses. The huts, also housing the cattle, are fenced with timberlogs and brushwood. This is a deterrent for the lions seeking easy prey.

The huts are clean and beautifully maintained. The ladies wear colorful dresses intricately embroidered and engage themselves in various household activities.

Maldhari society is male dominated. Literacy rates are low. Child marriages are common. Widow remarriages are encouraged. Ladies are held in great respect and worshipped as a form of the Goddess Durga. Maldharis are fond of ornaments and tattoos. They have a very sensitive relationship with the forest and its surroundings in not only deriving immense benefits from the forest resources but also losing a few cattle to the lions in the bargain.

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