By Bharat Lal
Girnar forest, spread across 179 sq km, is located in the drought prone region of Junagadh, Gujarat. Till 1963, Asiatic Lions inhabited this area. Due to illegal hacking and felling, the forest degenerated and wildlife lost their habitat.
People were concerned and there was a desire to do something about it. With time bootleggers started using this for production of illicit liquor. In this backdrop, I was given an opportunity and posted there in July, 1992.
Some concerted efforts were made and this forest was presented to people as a source of water for Junagadh city and adjoining 39 villages. In addition to protection, eco-restoration drive was taken up.
About 1,100 plus illegal wood cutters whose livelihood was dependent on this forest, were trained and offered alternate opportunities. Law was enforced. NGOs and nature lovers joined hands. A movement was started to restore this forest and its wildlife.
Massive soil and moisture conservation work was taken up. To boost the morale of staff, housing and other facilities was created near forest areas, communication networks were set up.
Mining was stopped, open mines were converted to water bodies. Watershed management principles followed. More than 140 odd check dams constructed to create perennial water sources. Rampant encroachment that had happened because of it being adjacent to a city, was removed. Order was restored.
Girnar is also a sacred place for the Jain community. Hindus and Muslims too have religious places in this area.
In 1993, herbivores especially spotted dear and Sambhar started appearing. Rare rusty spotted cat appeared.
Now, it was turn of the King of Jungles himself. He came, and came with his pride. During the monsoon of 1993, Asiatic Lions returned. Radial distance from Gir being about 40 kms, migration of lions also took place.
In 1995 Lion census, their population was recorded. At times, lions can also be seen sitting on roads leading to the forest.
Later, Gujarat government headed by the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi declared it a sanctuary.
Today, more than 50 Asiatic Lions are inhabiting in this area. They got back their abode, which was one lost. People of Junagadh got back their pride – pride of Gujarat – thriving population of Asiatic Lions. And of course, precious clean water. Wood cutters went on to make their and their children’s life better.
And in midst of all this, there is the ‘Grand Old Guard of Girnar’ – the Guardian of Girnar who is looking after it, giving inspiration, strength to contribute in this noble path.
People like us come and go. But he is there, always. Day in and day out. Protecting our natural heritage. And with him, on the ground, forest guards to make all this happen. They are there, whether it is cold of winter or heat of summer, whether it is in midst of forest fire or in rains, they are there with a single motto – to protect it, to preserve it for us, for our present and of course for our future generations.
There is a lesson in protecting and preserving our natural heritage, involving people and looking from their angle. Seeing our efforts from different vantage points. Assimilating it. Enabling people to own it. To make it their mission…. their goal of life…
(The author, an IFS officer, is serving as Additional Secretary in Union Jal Shakti Ministry)