India's pride and joy: Saving the Asiatic Lions in Gir with Upma Bhatnagar on The Lion Kingdom

Filmmaker-producer Upma Bhatnagar takes us to the depths of the Gir National Park, and the hearts of the locals, to tell us a gut-wrenching story of the survival of the majestic Asiatic Lion.

Jaideep Sen Published :  03rd February 2020 07:04 PM   |   Published :   |  03rd February 2020 07:04 PM
Saving the Asiatic Lion on The Lion Kingdom, Animal Planet

Saving the Asiatic Lion on The Lion Kingdom, Animal Planet

The Lion Kingdom showcases an incredible fight to save the Asiatic Lions of the Gir National Park.

The 10-part series keeps its focus on the heroic efforts of the forest officials to save the lions from a deadly outbreak of canine distemper virus.

The show takes viewers to the forefront of the battle with the virus, which threatened to wipe out the last of the surviving Asiatic Lions in the world.

Produced by filmmaker Upma Bhatnagar, Executive Producer and Director, Optimum Television, the series also features renowned veterinary surgeon Steve Leonard, as the series host.

The story is truly inspiring — of the Asiatic Lions’ fight with destiny, and their triumph over a disease that wiped out over 1,000 lions in one sweep across the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, back in the 1990s. 

The lions of Gir live up to their name of being referred to as India’s pride, enthuse the show’s hosts. Along with the indomitable spirit of the glorious beasts, the relentless work of people in the background — the forest department and veterinarians, is what truly helped turn this near-disaster into a story of hope.

Speaking about the series, Upma says, "It was the serious-most alarm not only in Gir, but in India’s entire conservation history since independence. At stake was the existence of an entire species — the Asiatic lions — that does not exist anywhere else in the world."

"When I heard many scientists and conservationists express fears that the Indian lion may not be able to come out of this crisis, I was really worried. Gir is very special to me. I enjoy a special bond with the land, its people and its majestic animals."

For a quick note, the Asiatic Lion once roared across Southeastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India, though the regal cats dwindled in numbers in the late-19th and 20th centuries, thanks to excessive hunting and famines. 

The last surviving Asiatic Lions can be found only in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, at the Gir. And it has taken forest workers 140 years of unwavering dedication to bring the majestic animal back to a relatively healthy number of 500-plus.

We got to speak at length with Upma about the making of the show, and she also let us in on some heart-wrenching emotional moments during filming... 


Saving the Asiatic Lion on The Lion Kingdom, Animal Planet


News reports still speak of the deadly canine virus killing lions in the Gir forest. How true are these reports, and whom do we believe?
Obviously, it is true. There was a breakout of the canine distemper virus in 2018, in the Gir forest. But fortunately, they managed to contain it to a very small area. Of course, there were a lot of wild numbers being thrown around, but the official number of lions that died was 23. 

How real is the threat to Asiatic Lions today - since when you made the film? 
The canine distemper virus is really a global threat to all the big cats, not just in India. Unfortunately, there isn't any cure for it. You have to prevent or take action so that it doesn't spread - because it spreads from the dogs, who are the carriers, and it spreads from the dogs to other animals like the jackals and the mongoose, which get into the national park.

As of now, we have managed to contain the virus, and from what we saw, and filmed - the authorities have taken every possible measure, they give the lions regular health checks, and they are monitoring the lions on a regular basis. So there doesn't seem to be any immediate threat from the canine distemper virus. The one incident that took place was in a very small area, and it has been contained. 

How has this film helped in making a positive change?
The main focus of the film was - to go to the ground level and see what is the truth. As you say, there was a lot of news going around, and this was for the very first time that any outsiders were allowed into the national park after the outbreak of the virus. By outsiders, I mean, anybody outside the forest department.

And what the film aims to highlight is the efforts, and the challenges, that the forest staff faced to ensure the longterm future of the Asiatic lion. Also, you have to remember, these are the only lions outside of Africa. In that sense, India has a huge responsibility.

The film serves to highlight the work and hardships that the forest department, and people at the ground level, along with the people of Gujarat - all that they are doing to make sure that the lion population continues to flourish in India. 

Take us back to the earliest days of shooting - when and how did you begin? 
When we got to know about the outbreak of the canine distemper virus, I was really very worried. Gir has a very special place in my own career, and my life, because I started my first series The Lion Queens of India with Discovery and Animal Planet, and since then, I've been in close contact with the forest staff, and the people there.

So when I heard about the virus outbreak, I was definitely worried, and I wanted to do something about it because this is really one of the biggest threats to conservation efforts in India. The canine distemper virus is the toughest challenge that any forest staff, anywhere, can face - with any species concerned.

Here, we had to ask, what if the virus remained unchecked and wiped out the entire species altogether? That really became the story, and I went to Animal Planet and told them I wanted to make a film on what is happening, what is the actual situation. And they gave us their full support, logistical and editorial - and that's what led me to make this series.

Give us your earliest memories of the Gir forest.
The last time I filmed, everybody had seen Gir as a dry, dusty, brown-coloured landscape - that is the landscape that everybody thinks Gir is known for. This time, because we were filming during the monsoons - which is another unique thing about the series, that nobody has ever filmed the Gir during the monsoon, because the national park is closed to outsiders during this period - it's a totally different landscape.

You wouldn't believe it was the Gir, it was so lush and so green and beautiful. But that again was most challenging. Initially, we thought - it doesn't matter, we can film during the monsoon. But it was one of the toughest environments to film in.

You know, this year, that part of India has had an unprecedented amount of rain. It was not a normal monsoon, it was absolutely chucking it down there when we were filming. And it's one thing to say, it doesn't matter, my camera team and I might get wet - but you're filming with expensive 4K equipment. How do you continue to film when it is raining so heavily?

But that was also the most exciting thing, because the people and forest staff are actually out there, working in that environment. So when you see that translated on camera, and into film - that was absolutely mind-blowing.

The other thing was that the visibility of the animals and the lions during the monsoon is very, very poor. In summers, they seek the cover of vegetation, or they come to the watering hole - so you can place your camera there, and wait for them and film them.

But then, during the monsoon, the vegetation is so thick and high - that you can't see the lions. So to film them, and to even get to see them, was a huge challenge.


Saving the Asiatic Lion on The Lion Kingdom, Animal Planet


Give us a sense of the heroic efforts of the forest officials. How personally involved was each officer?
I have to say, I was blown away their dedication and commitment - it's not a job for them. Most of these people are the ground staff. I'm not talking about the officials, but the people at the ground level - who are actually executing these policies, the trackers, the forest staff - they are the first line of defence, so to say, the foot soldiers.

They are out there no matter what the weather condition, and it is amazing to see them work 24/7 throughout the year, and their dedication is unbelievable. And these are not people who get high salaries or big, fat packages - it's really just their passion.

You ask any of them, they are genuinely proud of the lions, that the lions are the pride of Gujarat. And they want to do everything to protect the lions. And you have to see some of the sequences because sometimes they put their own lives at risk.

We have shown a sequence where some of them were stranded when a bridge broke down, and they were trapped in the heavy rain, and how they were rescued. I found that amazing. 

Did you build an emotional connection with the lions through the film? What are the most emotional moments in the series?
Obviously, I've been to Gir at least 20 times in the last five years, and the Gir has a special place in my heart, as I said. And I know a lot of the lions in the pride, and I know the individual lions by their names because we followed them. And the most heart-wrenching experience was when one of the lionesses had just given birth to three cubs.

In the lion kingdom, it is like, if a new male lion takes over that area or territory, he will kill these small cubs of another lion. So we were following this lioness - and she and her pride was moving from one place to another, trying to hide the cubs from the other male lions, and it was so heart-breaking to find one day that she had lost two of her cubs, who had been killed eventually.

But that's the law of the jungle, and you can't really do anything about it, or save the cubs. It was about the survival of the fittest, and that's how the whole lion kingdom works. 

We had become so emotionally involved in the whole thing, that we were eager to save the cubs. One day, when we were filming and we just saw one cub with the lioness, and the two others missing - that was really, really heart-wrenching. It was really one of the most emotional lows.

Then again, there was another great story, where the forest staff had managed to save two leopard cubs, and that was a happy occasion. That's part of life, I guess.

Sometimes things don't go right, and it's natural - you don't interfere with what nature is doing in the forest, as that's how the animal kingdom works. But of course, it makes you think, if we were able to save the leopard cubs, then maybe even the lion cubs could have really been saved. 

As a story of survival and hope, how does this film series apply to so many other animal species faced by extinction?
This special series was based in the Gir, so we spoke about other animals within the Gir - the leopards, crocodiles and more, we filmed them all. But the focus of the story was the fight for the survival of the Asiatic lions.

There are so many opportunities for us to see how these lions are battling against all odds to survive. It is not easy, when you consider such negative stories coming out of Africa, for instance, where they're being hunted and poached.

So, to see the kind of efforts and dedication that the people of Gujarat - I'm not saying just the forest officials, but the people who are living with these big cats, these carnivores at their doorstep.

It's so great to see how willing they are to live with the big cats, and they want the lions to survive. And that's the biggest hope for this species - the people of the region, who are mostly responsible because they have lived into the idea, and they are coexisting peacefully with the big cats. 


Dr Steve Leonard on The Lion Kingdom


How important was it to have Dr Steve Leonard as the series host, to help compare Indian circumstances to other parts of the world?
Steve is widely travelled, and the most important thing was that he himself has a practice in the West. He vaccinates domestic dogs every day against the canine distemper virus, but he has seen the devastation that this virus can cause in the big cats in Africa and other parts of the world.

So his presence was instrumental, and we wanted him to come here and see for himself, and then independently be a judge of whether what India was doing was enough, and how he felt about this whole experience.

His presence was very essential, as nobody else has his kind of knowledge, expertise and experience of similar scenarios the world over. He has worked with other species that have been affected by the same canine distemper virus in other parts of the world.

For him to come to Gir, and to see what is being done for himself, how the Indian authorities are coping. And he was also amazed at the effort and the dedication, and the resources that have been put in.

As we get to see, at the end of the film, he goes back with a very firm sense of hope that the future of the Asiatic lion is safe in India.

How aware were the lions about the film crew, and how did they get comfortable and accustomed to your presence around them?
Lions are very social animals. Individually, even with tourists, they will not run away. In that sense, I spend a lot of time with tigers also. But with a tiger, it's very difficult to film - as he will just sit there and not do anything for hours.

In fact, the first instinct of the tigers is to hide behind the bushes or go away from the open, even when you find them somewhere. But lions are more chilled out, in that sense.

Obviously, we were very careful not to disturb them. For instance, if during filming, we came upon a pride or small cubs, we'd film them from a safe distance, with long lenses.

But I have to say, lions are a lot more chilled out, and they don't really bother with you. They're not really bothered that somebody is going by, or passing through.

Of course, we would never get down from our vehicle, and we were always parked at a safe distance when we saw them, and we used long lenses to get the close-ups and stuff like that.

We also used some latest drones, which hardly make any noise - so the lions were rarely were. So we took extreme care not to disturb the lions when they were in a pride, or just sitting around.

Usually, lions are very comfortable around humans, especially in Gir, with so many people going in and out of the forest, so with us, they weren't really bothered.

How proud are the Asiatic Lions as animals? For all the pride that we associate with them - are they really proud animals in the wild?
Oh, you have to look at a male lion - they are just so majestic. The tiger is instantly charismatic. But when you look at a male lion, in its full glory - the only word that comes to mind is, majestic.

With the tiger, you don't attribute that, even though it is the most beautiful predator. But when you look at a lion, and they are absolutely very proud - and in a very beautiful way. The females are sort of smaller in size, but the male lions are beautiful.

Were there any life-threatening moments for the film crew? Did any of you come close to being killed by a lion?
No, not really, because we had to follow certain rules and regulations, so we never really reached that line. But yes, we were once filming a group of three lions from a distance, and our camera person was only looking through the lenses - he was filming the lions, and I was with him.

And he didn't realise that one of those three lions had slowly moved closer to us, and very near our vehicle. Suddenly, he just passed us by, and when we saw him - he looked at us - we realised it was right next to us.

But the first rule of wildlife filming is, you are not supposed to make any sudden movements. So we just stood completely still, we did not make any movement, and we watched them very closely - it is difficult, and I guarantee you do scared, because they are huge animals, and we were in an open Gypsy because that's the only way you can film, and there isn't any protection.

After that moment, you do feel, wow! For just those few seconds, however, we were terrified. Thankfully, the lion just walked away. 

Watch The Lion Kingdom on Animal Planet & Animal Planet HD.

— Jaideep Sen