Big Cat Diaries 2: Lions in the Village

January 19, 2019
Photo by:
Laurence Rose

"If, in the morning, you see a lion's face, it is auspicious - it will be a good day"

Asiatic lioness in the Gir Forest
Endangered Asiatic lioness in the Gir Forest

From Mumbai I flew to Rajkot in the north-western state of Gujarat to meet Manisha Rajput, my guide and fixer for the second part of my visit to India. Manisha knows the Gir Forest intimately, and has worked closely with the Maldhari people and their neighbours, the world’s only remaining Asiatic lions.  From the brink of extinction a century ago, India’s lions are making a sustained comeback leading to daily encounters with the Maldhari and their livestock. 

Maldhari buffalo herdsman in the Gir Forest, Gujarat

What we today call the Asiatic lion was found as far west as Turkey in the 19th century, from where it ranged east to Bengal, only to be wiped out by the early 20th, all but a few dozen survivors. 

In India, where there was no popular hunting tradition, lions and tigers were considered royal game. The advent of British rule in Saurashtra introduced the obsessional hunting of the ruling classes, and created a pseudo-aristocracy of men and women who in their own country had populated the middle echelons of business, military and civil service.  In response, in 1879 the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, Mahbatkhanji II ordered the strict protection of lions in his domains, which included the Gir Forest, now their only home.  Even so, shooting was sometimes allowed, to curry favour with selected high-ranking British officials who found the prospect of bagging India’s most elusive trophy irresistible.

With Independence the Indian traditions of respect for all life, reverence for big cats, and an abhorrence of hunting, returned.  Full legal protection came in 1972 and by the time of the most recently published Asiatic Lion Census, in May 2015, the population was 523, compared to 411 in 2010 and 359 in 2005.

If, in the morning, you see a lion’s face, it is auspicious – it will be a good day

Hardabhai, Maldhari elder in Vaniavav, Gujarat
Three generations of Maldhari men. Meraman, on the left, told me about the night he was attacked by a lion and hospitalised. Yet he and his father Hardabhai (next right), have no fear, only respect for the animal they regard as kin and king.

This increase has led to a renewal of contact between the people of the Gir Forest, particularly the buffalo-herding Maldhari tribe, and the animal they regard as their kin, and their king.  I interviewed women, men and children (whose singing of the Duha – a traditional sung poem depicting life in the forest with its lions – you can hear in the podcast) whose lives among the lion prides of the Gir involves daily encounters. I listened as they explained how the occasional loss of livestock and even the rare cases of injury to people, lead to no recrimination, only an increased determination to coexist.

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