Friday, March 15, 2013

Asiatic Lions

Several years ago I was watching a documentary on the Asiatic Lion.  Although similar to the African Lion, it is a different sub-species.  I had not known there were any varieties - I had thought there were only African lions.  I was very interested in the Asiatic lion and how it was the same and different from the African relative.  Asiatic lions were once widely distributed across India and parts of Asia, but they were hunted to near extinction.  Depending on what source you consult, Asiatic lions were hunted down to 12-50 individuals at the beginning of the 20th century, all in one area in southern India.  At that time, an appeal was made for their conservation and the ruler of the area where they were located decreed their protection.  Watching that documentary of the Asiatic lion, I learned that the only remaining population lived in a wildlife park named Sasan Gir:  I vowed to go there one day.  I kept this promise to myself last month.

I rejected a number of small group wildlife tours to India because they did not include Sasan Gir.  I could not understand why anyone would want to go to India on a wildlife trip and NOT see this endangered animal.  The population as of 2010 was counted at 411 individual lions.  That's it, folks.  That is the entire world population - it suffers from lack of genetic diversity, and since all the animals are in one location, there is only so much space - there are population pressures, and one single event could wipe these animals off the earth.  One bad outbreak of disease.  One major natural disaster or pollution event and that's it, no more Asiatic lions.  To give you some perspective, that's roughly half of the current gorilla population.....the Asiatic lion doesn't get as much press, but there are far fewer.  Of course, the population has been increasing (it was less than 200 in 1974) but on the other hand the space is finite.  One attempt to establish a second population seemed to work until all the lions were killed, and a second is stalled by the government of Gujarat (tied up in the Supreme Court of India) because Gujarat does not want to lose the attraction of being the only location in the world where you can see the Asiatic lion.  Sigh.

For me including Sasan Gir on an itinerary was a MUST, and I booked an individual trip as a result of the importance to me of seeing these lions.  Sasan Gir is located in the state of Gujarat, a primarily Muslim area and a fairly expensive tourist destination due to it being remote.  I was told by several tour companies they avoided Sasan Gir due to the cost and because people "don't want to spend that much just to see lions" and "there are only lions to see there, not really much else."  Well, I don't think that way - there are lions there, that is all I need to go (there actually are very cool other species to see nearby, should you go).

So I get to Sasan Gir, and I am on my first morning game drive - and we see a female lion drinking at a lake and then walking up towards the road.  In this park, I might add, you have a driver and are required to take a park ranger with you and stay on assigned routes, and check in and check out of the park...so it is supposedly highly regulated and allegedly one of the "best managed" parks in India.  (If this is true, by the way, I am so very sad for the animals of India).  This is my initial view of the lioness as she makes her way towards the road I am on:


I was initially thrilled - an Asiatic lion!  At last!  One of the last!  Then I got a closer view:


And then a full view:


Yes, unfortunate that the road marker is in the photo....but still, I was seeing a beautiful lioness, so I was still thrilled to have that chance.  Now when I am watching wildlife, I do my best to block out the sounds of other humans - annoying as they may be - so I had done my best to ignore some yelling that was coming from some nearby human.  I watched the lion walk a bit up the road in front of me, towards some other tourist jeeps.  And then, to my great amazement, the yelling guy appeared right where the lion had come up onto the road.  He was on foot, unarmed except for a stick, and was clearly following the lion.  Turns out he was "a tracker," men who I am told are charged with following the lions in the tourist zone at Sasan Gir so that they can be located - making it easier for the tourists (all of whom were as obsessed with seeing lions as they were obsessed in the other parks with seeing tigers) to see them.

Don't believe me that there is a man on foot, unarmed, not far behind the lion?  Well here he is.


Actually, the trackers get way closer to the lions than that!  I saw them five feet away....FIVE FEET.  ON FOOT.  You would never see this in Africa.  I could not believe it.  With a stick?  WHAT?  Ah, but it got so much worse.

There is a watchtower area not far ahead in the direction this lion is walking.  The handler seemed to be trying to steer her there but she went down to the left, then there was a lot of yelling between rangers/guides/drivers and handlers.  I asked for a translation and I was told "Well they like to steer the lion by the tourist cars so people can pet it."  WHAT?????????????  "Yes, the lion does not care about jeeps so you sit in the jeep and as it passes by you just put your fingers out on its back and you pet it and it keeps walking - I have seen this many times."

WTF?  This is not my idea of respecting wildlife.  Or being smart.  Or having common sense.  Or seeing animals in the wild.  It is not a petting zoo - these animals are supposed to be free.  But here, in the last little pocket of the world in which they live, the lions in the tourist zone are not really free.  They are harassed with sticks.  When laying in the bushes, they are chased out by the men with sticks so they lie closer to the road so tourists can see them better.  I saw this over and over.  I had seven game drives in Sasan Gir, and saw lions several times.  As I post the pictures I will try and relate what atrocities I saw committed by man in the process.  Suffice it to say, in summary, I saw bribery, animal harassment, blatant disregard of the rules, disrespect, and overall it was not an enjoyable wildlife viewing experience.  I was shocked over and over again by what I saw.

So I am glad, yes, that I got the chance to see Asiatic lions.  There are so few left.  I went to such great effort and expense to see them.  But the experience was not at all what I had hoped, and I for one do not think I would go back.  It's not the heat or dust that will keep me away, not the cost (even though the camera charges for foreigners and exorbitant) - it is that I cannot stand to see "wild" animals treated like they are in captivity.  They are free to starve or die, they have to make a living like other wild animals, they are not fed - but they are not free to live life undisturbed by man.  In many, many places in the world where wildlife tourism supports conservation, the animals still have a good life, for the most part.  I am very sorry to say I do not believe this to be the case in Sasan Gir based on what I saw.

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