s of frenzied hunting, encouraged by British colonials. Three years after independence, the country’s Asiatic cheetahs were extinct.
But the lions in Gujarat got a reprieve. A princely ruler banned hunting of the few dozen lions left in 1901.
The state created Gir Sanctuary over more than 1,400 square kilometers (540 square miles), relocating all but a few hundred buffalo herdsmen who lived peaceably with the predators, mainly by giving them wide berth.
The sanctuary became a model in conservation, with constant patrols against poachers and cultivated grasslands for the lions’ prey: spotted deer and blue-hued antelope. A veterinary hospital was built. The lions thrived.
Tourists from India’s newly minted middle class now flock to the park, riding open-topped jeeps to see lions lazing under trees or teaching their butterfly-chasing young to stalk small prey.
A few dozen trackers keep count of the animals and fill artificial water holes.
“Not everyone gets a job like this,” said Raju Vajadiya, idly swinging a stick, the only defense he and his colleagues usually have or need. “It is a godly thing to give a lion water on a hot day.”
Protecting the lions has been popular with locals, who consider the predators docile when not harassed. Farmers welcome them in their fields. Newly married couples visit them for good luck. Families break park rules to picnic by Gir’s streams, unaware or unconcerned that they are water sources for the big cats.
“The lion is like a god to us,” peanut farmer Sadik Hasein Chotiyara said. “If the lion attacks, it’s because that person made a mistake.”
At the same time, locals in general are more open to sharing the lions with other states than Gujarat’s leaders are.
Gujarat officials insist lion attacks on humans don’t happen. Nonsense, say scientists and residents.
Research indicates confrontations are increasing, as the growing cat population has pushed one in four lions into new mini-sanctuaries they get to by riverbeds that snake through farms and villages.
Droughts that kill prey can make matters worse. After a drought in the 1980s, there were 120 lion confrontations in 1989-91 killing 21 people — five taken as lion food, said biologist Ravi Chellam.
Most of the estimated 15 lion attacks each year happen outside the park, where people are less lion-savvy, scientists say. In April, a lion killed a 35-year-old man who was reportedly pelting it with stones.
Gujarat’s conservation laurels now teeter on its next move. Experts say Gujarati officials can best show their devotion to the lions by letting some go. The lions urgently need a second sanctuary, they say — on