At the turn of the 20th century, the great Asiatic lions, which once roamed from Palestine to Palamau, began disappearing in large numbers across West Asia and North India.
The only consistent refuge they found was in Gir forest of present-day Gujarat. Even there, they had become victims of shikar (hunting) expeditions by British officials and princes, loss of habitat and conflict with cattle, owned by residents living in its vicinity.
Today, the protected area of the Gir National Park of Gujarat, which covers an area of 1,412 square kilometres, is a standard bearer for the conservation of the Asiatic lions in India. But the foundation of present day conservation efforts was laid by the Nawabs of the erstwhile princely state of Junagadh, whose territories covered large tracts of the forest.
Historians have stated that the Junagadh princely state’s efforts under the Nawabs of the Babi clan were among the earliest attempts in India at protecting a species for its own sake since many of these present day national parks and protected natural areas were once the old hunting grounds of Indian princes and British officials.
It was in 1735, when Sher Khan Babi evicted the last Mughal governor out of the region and created a dynasty of nine Nawabs which lasted until 1947. The focus of this article will be on the reign of the eighth and ninth Nawabs which was split by a decade of direct rule by the British colonial administration.
Without the intervention of these Nawabs, it’s safe to say that the Asiatic Lions would have all but disappeared from the Gir forest. Having said that, the first significant effort at conserving these lions came from the sixth Nawab Mahabat Khanji II (1851-1888) in 1879.
Angered at dwindling sightings of lions in his territory, he issued a set of rules which basically banned all forms of hunting and trapping of the animal unless they received specific permission from the state.
Supporting him in this endeavour was Lord Sandhurst, the Governor of Bombay. This was a significant order by any stretch because according to some estimates from 1875 to 1925 about 150,000 leopards, 80,000 tigers and 200,000 wolves were killed for sport or rewards while many others died without notice.
Despite their best intentions, neighbouring princes and British officials continued to pursue these lions. The next significant order came from the Nawab Rasul Khanji (1892-1911) in 1892, who banned the killing of the peacocks and passed a set of rules that basically stated that lions “could only be shot by special permission of the state for special reasons and circumstances,” according to this article in the Conservation and Society journal.
However, this did little to aid conservation efforts. Senior British officials and neighbouring princes were still keen on their hunting expeditions, particularly in forest areas extending beyond the jurisdiction of the princely Junagadh state.
Troubled by the lack of any serious attempts at protecting the lion population, Rasul Khanji wrote a letter to Lord Curzon in April 1901, seeking his support. In the letter, he stated while hunting was heavily restricted within the confines of the Junagadh state, they could not confine the movement of lions once they had left the princely state’s boundaries, and were thus vulnerable.
Rasul Khanji had feared “that this noble race will be extinguished by the hands of common people, unless the prohibition of destroying it is strictly enforced in all surrounding places [neighbouring states and smaller principalities] alike.”
All of these attempts at conservation were sparked by estimates by various British officials and news reports on the number of lions left in the Gir. According to one Major General William Rice in 1850, their numbers were less than 300. Thirty years later in 1884, the Kathiawar Gazetteer said that lions were nearly wiped out with a rough estimate of a dozen left. This was an exaggeration. In 1905, British political agent Major H.G. Carnegie estimated that the lion population was between 60 and 70 whereas the Junagadh administration believed that ‘at least 100 lions’ were left at that time.
“By 1908-09 the area of Gir forest under the charge of the Forest Department had increased to 1530 square km and a sanctuary for lions was set up covering an area of over 326 square km within it. It was the first of its kind in the British Indian empire to be followed a decade later by Kaziranga which was declared a ‘Reserved Forest’ to protect the greater one horned rhinoceros in 1908. This was the culmination of the steps initiated under Lord Curzon’s Viceroyalty in 1905 when it was believed that hardly 10 to 12 animals were left in the area. It was declared a Game Sanctuary in 1926,” notes the Conservation and Society article.
Having said that, Rasul Khanji occasionally gave into demands from senior British officials to organise shikars. When he died in 1911, his heir was a minor, and as the colonial government did not want to take any chances with their administrative control of this princely state, they officially took over for a decade till his heir Nawab Mahabat Khanji III came of age.
Under this decade-long stewardship of senior British official HD Rendall, ‘not even a Governor of Bombay … was invited to shoot in the forest’. When Mahbatkhanji came of age and took over in 1921, he rejected requests from Maharaja Jam Saheb Ranjitsinhji of Navanagar (of ‘Ranji’ cricket fame) and Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner to shoot lions.
Annoyed by these requests, he wrote a long letter to E Maconochie, the Agent to the Governor of Bombay in Rajkot, parts of which are worth quoting here.
“As a matter of fact the real point at issue is the ownership of lions and the political right of inviting distinguished visitors to Kathiawad for lion shikar. … what I complain of is that lions are tempted to stray outside by tying up buffaloes just over my borders … This is nothing more or less than poaching from which I think I have a right to be protected by [the Imperial] government. If I were to take the law into my own hands, the result would be a constant series of border affrays which would endanger the peace of this part of Kathiawad,” he wrote.
“It is an unquestionable fact that the house of the lion is the Gir forest and equally unquestioned that the forest is my ancestral property. The preservation of the forest which covers about 500 sq. miles [1295 km 2 ] of my territory is supposed to be of value to the province as a whole, not only as a constant source of grass and fire wood, but also because of its effect on rainfall. But what has undoubtedly weighed with the Nawabs of Junagadh in the past and carries weight also with me is that the forest is the last sanctuary of Indian lions.”
Besides taking ownership of the lions, he also threatened to break the peace with neighbouring states and even threatened to destroy the forests if his demands of protecting the lions outside the jurisdiction of Junagadh were not met.
Unfortunately, the colonial government didn’t give in to his demands, and rival princely states continued to shoot lions outside the jurisdiction of Junagadh. However, his efforts didn’t stop. He went onto conduct the very first lion census in 1936, which presented a total figure of 287.
It’s a battle Mahabat Khanji fought till 1947, even though between 1920 and 1943, 89 lions were killed, as per records with the Junagadh State. When India declared Independence on August 15, he made the blunder of acceding to Pakistan on the advice of his diwan Shah Nawaz Bhutto (former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s grandfather).
After losing control of his administration thanks to this decision, he had to leave for Karachi on 24 October, and eventually the erstwhile princely state acceded to India.
Following his departure, however, there was little administrative protection for the lions from hunters and within a span of five years from 1963 to 1968, the population of lions fell from 285 to about 177.
Understanding the need to prevent its extinction, the Indian Forest Department in September 1965 started a conservation programme for the Asiatic Lions and the forest area was designated as the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. From 177 in 1968, the number of Asiatic lions has jumped to 674 as of 2020. While forest officers and guards at Gir are tirelessly protecting the Asiatic lions, it was an idea that first saw the light of day under the Nawabs of Junagadh, who felt the need to protect instead of hunting them.
Reportedly, when Mahbatkhanji left for the airport to fly into Karachi, there were tears in his eyes. He looked upon the Girnar mountain, he said, ‘Who will protect my lions now?’ It took a while, but local villagers living in the vicinity of the National Park, forest officers and rangers in India have now taken these conservation efforts to another level.
Feature Image caption/source: Mohammad Rasul Khanji, Nawab of Junagadh (1892-1911), and Bahaduddinbhai Hasainbhai, Wazier, Junagadh, who was also state wazier under previous ruler/Wikimedia Commons/British Library
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)