Today, it is the great Bengal Tiger that is a mascot for wildlife in India. Every year, lakhs of visitors throng India’s national parks for a sight of the elusive tigers. But did you know that about two centuries ago the majestic Asiatic Lion was found deep within the Indian subcontinent and beyond across West Asia from Bengal to Mesopotamia?
Today their world has shrunk. The 1,412 sq km Gir National Park, in Gujarat is the only natural habitat of the Asiatic Lion. What saved the lions here, were the efforts of the Nawabs of Junagadh, who ruled the region.
The Asiatic lion is a part of the species of lions categorized as Panthera Leo Leo. Smaller than their African counterparts, they roamed across vast expanses of Asia, till as late as the 19th century. However, centuries of hunting and loss of habitat led to their extinction from most of Asia. The last known Asiatic lion in Iraq was hunted down in 1918, while the last sightings of them in Iran were in 1941.
In India, even though lions play an important role in mythology - perhaps the most important is the Narasimha, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the animal was still hunted down mercilessly for sport. By the 19th century, large scale hunting of lions by Indian maharajas and British officers wiped out lions from most of North India. They were hunted to extinction through the decades. In Sindh and Jharkhand by 1810s, in Eastern Gujarat by 1820s, in Madhya Pradesh by 1860s, in Rajasthan by 1870s and then from North Gujarat in the 1880s.
As a result, by the turn of the century, the only known lions in the subcontinent were in the forests of South Kathiawad, parts of which were located in the princely state of Junagadh.
The Nawabs of Junagadh were great animal lovers. Stories of the last Nawab’s love for his dogs is legendary. When India gained independence in 1947, he opted to flee to Pakistan with his dogs, famously leaving his wives behind! But these eccentricities aside, the Junagadh Nawab, followed his forefathers and championed the cause of the lions. We owe it to them.
The state of Junagadh was among the earliest in India to make laws for the conservation and protection of the lions that dwelled within their forests.
The first attempt at the protection of lions was made by the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat Khan in 1879. Shocked at the dwindling numbers of lions he promulgated a set of rules virtually banning all shikar (or hunting) and trapping of any kind of animal in his territory without the specific permission of the State. He was encouraged by Lord Sandhurst, Governor of Bombay, in this.
The Nawab’s efforts were exceptional at a time when there was mayhem everywhere else. It is estimated that between 1875 and 1925, 80,000 tigers,150, 000 leopards and 200,000 wolves were hunted down in the Indian subcontinent!
In 1892, Nawab Rasulkhanji (1892 – 1911) came to the throne and issued a new set of rules to put further checks. Heavy fines were imposed and he extended the mandate to protect more animals and birds. A ban was imposed on killing peacocks, for instance. The lions, on the other hand, could only be shot by special permission of the state and only in case of special circumstances.
Though the Junagadh State had taken formal steps for protecting the lion, sadly even this didn't help. Senior British officials continued their hunting expeditions. A case in point was that of Sir Seymour Fitzgerald, the Governor of Bombay, who went to the Gir in 1870, after inaugurating the Rajkumar College, at Rajkot, and ‘bagged’ five lions.
So troubled was the Nawab of Junagadh Rasulkhanji with what was happening that he wrote a letter to the Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1901, making a case for the protection of this ‘noble race’.The next Nawab continued the good work done by his father and grandfather before him. Nawab Mahabatkhanji III, the heir is said to have refused to allow all requests for hunts. The famous cricketer, Maharaja Ranjitsinhji of Nawanagar (Ranji) was denied the permit and so was Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner in 1913.
However, the jurisdiction of the Nawabs ended in the forests within his kingdom. the forest stretched across boundaries and the neighbouring princes continued to hunt these lions. According to records with the Junagadh State, between 1920 and 1943 as many as 89 lions were killed.
Thankfully, the efforts at the Junagadh end ensured that the lions were not wiped out completely. The Nawab continued to battle for the lions until the very end of his rule in October 1947.
Interestingly, it was under the influence of his Diwan, Sir Shah Nawaz Khan Bhutto (Benazir Bhutto’s grandfather), that the Nawab made what came to acknowledged as a political blunder and acceded to Pakistan. As a result, he had to flee in a plane to Karachi with his family, jewels and around 200 of his dogs!
After the departure of the Nawab, there was no protection for lions from the hunters. The population of lions declined by almost half, in just 5 years from 285 in 1963 to about 166 in 1968.
In the face of this rout, a wildlife conservation programme for the Asiatic lion was started by the Indian Forest Department from September 1965 with the declaration of a a designated area as a sanctuary.
The efforts proved a success and with the implementation of the wildlife management and Gir Development Scheme, the population of lions increased gradually from 177 in 1968 to 359 in 2005. As of 2020, the population of lions in and around Gir forest region and other revenue areas of coastal Saurashtra is estimated to be 674.
Today, the Asiatic lions are thriving in Gir, thanks to the early efforts and love of the Nawabs of Junagadh, who chose to protect, rather than hunt these majestic beasts.
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