Gir is a nature reserve located northwest of India where the shrine of the Asian lions is located, a species in serious danger of extinction.
The traditional thorn fences which surround the maldhari settlements, known as nesses are the only apparent means of protection that the farmers take to protect their animals from the lions and leopards which thrive in the forest.
Many generations of life with the big cats have taught both man and animals to tolerate each other so that the maldharis can wander at their leisure through the thick forest without risking their lives and without carrying guns with which to kill the lions.
The life of the Maldharis revolves around their livestock. Their buffaloes provide the milk which feeds them as well as the manure which they sell as fuel in neighbouring cities.
Some of the Maldharis who were resettled outside the park have started to work the land, but most of them are not interested in agriculture. Their identity as a tribe is closely linked to livestock, particularly buffaloes and some dromedaries which they use for riding.
The animals are milked at dawn. They make different dairy products with the nutritious buffalo milk, in particular ghee, an amazingly nourishing butter which like the manure is sold outside the park. In this way they obtain money to buy essential products which cannot be found in the forest of Gir.
Livestock provides the basis for the maldhari economy and its subsistence. Each animal is important and buffaloes and dromedaries are part of the community. However, the domestic livestock is something completely different for the wild animals. For the park’s herbivores the buffaloes are invincible competitors and for the carnivores they are the easiest and most succulent prey to catch, although they are normally accompanied by humans who are feared and respected.
The life of the eco-system is sustained by a balance between these four pillars, man, his livestock, the wild herbivores and the hunting carnivores. This balance demands sacrifices and concessions from all sides. The farmers’ buffaloes take advantage of the vegetation in the area thereby limiting the food and as a result the number of wild herbivores. In this way man benefits from the eco-system, but they must pay the price of the reduction in the numbers of the herbivores that feed the lions. They pay the price with the buffaloes which from time to time are hunted by the felines.
The number of buffaloes killed by the lions depends on the density of population of the wild herbivores. Now that the Park’s protective measures have allowed the populations of chitals, nilgais and wild boars to grow, 70% of the lions’ diet is provided by these animals.
In the past, however, when thousands of buffaloes and zebues devastated the pastures of Gir, livestock provided 75% of the big cats’ food. The Maldharis fought
against them and both men and lions were often killed.
The wild animals have better developed senses and are faster than the Maldhari livestock. This means that they are more difficult to catch, and this is why buffaloes quite often end up in the lions’ clutches. Asian lions, unlike their African counterparts, rarely associate with lionesses outside the mating season. In Africa, the wild animals that they hunt are large and can feed all of the pride. But here the chitals, their most common source of food, rarely reach 50 kilos, so hunting is done on an individual basis. The males, which in Africa take advantage of the catches of the female members of the group, must depend on themselves and these are the ones who are most often tempted by the easily-caught livestock: A buffalo involves a lot less effort for many more kilos of meat.
The females very rarely attack livestock. They prefer chitals and wild boars inside the forest and rarely come near the nesses of the maldharis.