Contentious conservation

Conflict between the local population in Gir and the conservation authorities can be traced back to the formation of the wildlife sanctuary in 1965. Revenue wastelands and grazing land on the Gir forest periphery were declared reserved and protected forests without the villagers knowledge.

This land was previously kept outside the main block of reserved forest by the Nawab of Junagadh in order to service the needs of the local people. The government declared a total area of 1900 sq km falling in both Junagadh and Amreli districts of Gujarat as the Gir protected area.

Further widespread resentment was caused when, following studies carried out by international conservation organisations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature in the '60s, the Union government was directed to prevent degradation of Gir forests and its lions by moving out the Maldharis and their livestock, considered the major culprits.

In 1972, the state government launched the Rs 45 lakh Maldhari rehabilitation scheme and of over 845 Maldhari families residing in 129 nesses inside Gir, 580 families were resettled outside the protected area. While the core area comprising the national park contains no human population, 54 nesses with 2,500 people and about 1,000 livestock still live inside the sanctuary. Another 4,500 people live in 14 forest settlement villages in the sanctuary.

Shankar Narayanan of the Gujarat Ecology Commission points out, "It is ironical that while foreign expertise was sought on how to save the lions, the rationale behind converting 500 Maldhari farmers who have been cattle rearers for generations, into agriculturists overnight was not questioned." Without training facilities, most relocated Maldhari families failed in agriculture. With the forced reduction in cattle population, incomes declined and the Maldharis began working as contract labourers or as agricultural workers in other farmers' fields.

Other points of contention in the area include raiding of crops by the growing population of herbivores and lion attacks on livestock and humans, a long standing problem. Despite the conflict with the beast, Karamta of Saddhebheda ness adds, "Seeing the lion a few times a year is considered auspicious."