In November 2015, a team from ZSL travelled to the Gir forest in India to work with local partners to help support lion conservation, as part of our work to support the endangered Asiatic lion.
There are only around 600 Asiatic lions left in the wild in their last remaining habitat in the Gir forest, Western India.
The project is a Society-wide team effort working with the local Gujarat Forest Department and our partner the Wildlife Institute of India to protect the Asiatic lion. Staff from across ZSL have been involved: members of the ZSL animal keeping team worked with staff at the conservation breeding centre, members of the education team worked with Sakkarbaug Zoo, where a million visitors every year learn about lions, and the conservation programmes team worked with the forest guards in the Gir National Park and Sanctuary.
The project is a multifaceted approach to conservation and aims to build local capacity for both in-situ and ex-situ conservation in the Gir, bringing together ZSL experts to share skills with their counterparts in the Gujarat Forest Department, the government body responsible for the conservation of Asiatic lions and their habitat. The aim is to share skills and knowledge and lend support in any way we can.
I spent my time working with the forest guards that look after the Gir Forest National Park, the National Park where most of the remaining Asiatic lions live.
I trained the forest guards and officers in navigation and patrol planning, and in data collection. Here’s a snippet of my three packed days in the Gir.
The guards were then given in an introduction to SMART conservation software and practice. SMART uses data gathered from daily patrols and analyses it to produce reports that can be used to make important decisions about managing a protected area.
In the afternoon we went through training in map reading skills using latitude and longitude, and how to input GPS coordinates into a GPS device in order to follow them.
The forest guards also gave us a background of what they do on a daily basis, and what problems they face the most, so these can be incorporated into the data collection system.
Next up it was time for some field exercises! The park staff were all given some pick-me-ups (chocolate and mango juice), and told to split into teams and hide them nearby in the forest. They then had to write down the coordinates of where they left the treats, and when they got back to camp, they swapped coordinates with another team, and went to go and find the hidden treasures using the GPS coordinates that they had been given.
With map reading and GPS skills up to date, it was time to train in the real crux of SMART patrolling, and what gets conservationists like me excited; collecting data! Booklets specially designed for the Gir were handed out, which allow guards on patrol to collect all manner of useful data quickly with a user-friendly system.
We walked around the grounds creating imaginary observations and recording them in the booklets. The guards got pretty creative about making up observations to record! I was quickly shot down when suggesting a lion carcass though; the guards didn’t even want to pretend to see one because they care that much about their iconic animals.
On day 3 it was time to go out for real! The rangers used their new skills to plan out a patrol, and input the waypoint coordinates into GPS devices. We headed from waypoint to waypoint recording data as we went. We quickly found that there was no need to make up observations this time round as there was plenty to see! A fresh lion kill was spotted early on in the patrol and plenty of lion scat (poo).
An even closer encounter awaited us though, as we were walking through the forest we heard the unmistakable sound of lions from a nearby bush. We got in a little closer to see if we could spot the animals, and it turned out to be two, a male and a female. We quickly realised that it was two lions mating, so we decided it would be best to give them some space and hastily moved on!
Exhausted after the patrol, we went back to headquarters to input the data we collected. The forest guards then got to see the patrol that they had performed mapped out, including all the observations that they had made. This gives a nice visualisation of how important the rangers’ work is. It displays the areas they protect, and shows all of the information that they gather, and how it can be useful to managers making decisions on how to protect the area most efficiently.
Working with the guards was a lot of fun, they are a great bunch. I learnt so much from them, and I hope the skills they learnt from us will be put to good use. They were really friendly, welcoming and the passion for their work protecting the Gir lions is clear.
It’s always a privilege to get out into the field and see incredible species like the Asiatic lion to remind you why you do what you do and why all the hard work is worth it.
The Gir is such a unique and amazing place. The pride that the rangers have in the Gir, its lions, and what they do to protect them is the reason why the lions were rescued from the brink, and gives a lot of hope for the future of the species.
Plenty of cubs like these in the Gir forest is a good sign that conservation measures are having an effect.
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