The Gir Sanctuary and National Park in Gujarat, western India, is home to the only free ranging population of Asiatic lions Panthera leo leo. The landscape is semi-arid, consisting of dry deciduous forests and grasslands. The Park has a rich diversity of wild ungulates and a high density of leopards Panthera pardus in addition to the famous lions.

The lions have been victims of direct persecution as well as habitat loss and degradation. Their numbers have been resurrected through dedicated management efforts following a bottleneck at the end of the 20th century. The population has since grown steadily. However, the c. 2,000 km2 area of the Gir Sanctuary and National Park is not large enough to sustain the growing population of over 600 lions. About 200 lions have dispersed out of the protected area into a landscape occupied by people.

Female Asiatic lions. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

In this landscape—which comprises agriculture fields, orchards, human habitations, and protected and unprotected forest patches—local communities, particularly the pastoral Maldharis, have coexisted with lions for over a century. This historical coexistence has been an important factor in the survival of these lions. We are interested in tracking this relationship, particularly as the growing lion population results in more frequent interactions between lions and people. We have been recording the consequences and effects of these interactions on the attitudes of people towards lions. An earlier study revealed that local people, predominantly farmers, appreciated the ecosystem services provided by forests as well as the ecological role of lions as the apex predator. This sentiment was expressed regardless of the increase in lion attacks on people and economic losses through livestock depredation. Lions were also seen as a friend to farmers, keeping wild ungulates away from crops. At night-time it is not unusual for a lion to walk across a crop field close to where a farmer is guarding his crop—both going about their business without interfering with the other.

A male lion in his domain inside the Gir sanctuary. Photo: Bivash Pandav

Our study examined the specific factors that are promoting these positive attitudes and that are conducive to lion survival in this region. We found a fascinating blend of traditional coping mechanisms on the one hand and positive, informed attitudes of young people on the other. Overall, most people opted for non-interventionist strategies for managing lions outside the protected area and indicated that lions have an equal claim on the land. Economic loss as a result of livestock depredation was, however, an important factors resulting in negative attitudes. Equally notable were some of the more subtle influences on attitude, such as gender, caste and how much as a community they expressed their interest in lion conservation. Interestingly, there were no such positive attitudes towards leopards, with a lot of ingrained mistrust and fear of this species.

Bluebull or Nilgai in human dominated landscape. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

Our study highlights the fact that tolerance towards wild animals exhibits considerable geographical variation as a result, at least in part, of cultural differences. In the case of the Gir landscape, pride in lions, and affection for them, does not extend to leopards. One cannot wear the same hat for conservation planning for species conservation across a wider geographical range, not even for different species in the same area. Our article discusses how one has to draw upon these subtle differences for conservation planning. It is important to continuously monitor and assess human–wildlife interactions and local attitudes, which are influenced by changing human aspirations and experiences. Understanding the mechanisms underlying cultural tolerance can be a powerful tool for management as the Gir lion population spreads across this landscape.

Tracking radio-collared lions to understand ranging patterns. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

Since this study was conducted, canine distemper virus and a spate of attacks on people by lions and leopards have added further pressure to conservation efforts. In addition, penalties for illegal tourism activities, misuse of forest resources or violation of forest regulations have led to hostility towards the enforcing forest department. These incidents, although still rare, need to be controlled through patient engagement with local communities. Otherwise, the existing goodwill for forest and species conservation may collapse. Human deaths as a result of carnivore attacks could see the end of peaceful human–lion coexistence spanning several generations. Going forward, these factors—disease outbreak, conflict with managers and risk to human life—could be detrimental to the survival of the species.

Prime age young Asiatic male lion. Photo: Meena Venkataraman

Cultural coexistence mechanisms are a great help in ensuring the success of conservation. Local support for conservation can be a positive ally but in itself cannot be implemented as a policy. Conflict mitigation and proactive conservation actions are also important.  Conservation cannot rest on the tolerance of people alone—the ways and means to maintain this is a challenge and requires continuous engagement.

The article Evaluation of human attitudes and factors conducive to promoting human–lion coexistence in the Greater Gir landscape, India is published in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Meena Venkataraman runs the consultancy organization Carnivore Conservation & Research. She has been studying Asiatic lion ecology and conservation issues for over 15 years. Her work has contributed to conservation action on the ground and showcased the unique social organization, male coalition strategies and conservation issues of lions. Her present focus is on carnivore ecology in human dominated landscapes outside protected areas.