WORLD’S LAST ASIATIC LIONS IN GIR
Asiatic lions were once hunted almost to extinction, and now only a few remain in the world. So what if we are able to view the last Asiatic lions in the wild, without even crossing our borders? I had mixed feelings of excitement, nervousness and curiosity when the offer came from Gujarat Tourism for exactly such a chance. I could not believe I was being offered this exhilarating experience to journey to the farthest end of India’s western edge, to the Gir forest. We are taken by air from Chennai and to Veraval by train and thence on by road. After an hour’s drive we entered into an area of thorny shrubs and our road snaked through the woods. “We have entered the buffer zone of the forest. The lucky few will be able to see some wildlife here,” announces our driver. It is 12 noon and sweltering even in winter. Finally, we reach Sasan Gir, a hamlet hemmed in by the jungle known as Gir Sanctuary, famed as the only place in the world to see Asiatic lions. Many resorts and hotels have been set up in this village. The forest office and the entry gate to the lion habitat is located here. One has to get a permit to gain entry. Our resort (set up by Camps of India) is idyllic, set amidst sylvan surroundings on the banks of a river, lined by shrubs, inhabited by crocs and innumerable varieties (more than 300) of birds. It is
tented accommodation which is luxurious but without a few mod-cons like TVS. We were put up in large tents, which had perfectly adequate bathrooms attached. Each tent also had a wooden veranda where you could enjoy your evening non-alcoholic drink (alcohol is forbidden in Gujarat) while soaking up the weird and wonderful sounds of nature around you. The food was far from satisfactory. The maintenance is debatable. My tent does not having a proper padlock at the entrance door. The redeeming factors are the rustic ambience and AC. After feasting on Gujrati dokla and Ragi roti we move out at 4 p.m. Wildlife sighting is possible in Gir in two ways. The first one is at Devaliya Park, which is open throughout the year. This park is 10 kms from Gir. Since it is an observation centre, there is sure to be a sighting of the lions. We travel there by omnibus. To reduce the tourism hazard to wildlife and to promote nature education, this Interpretation Zone has been created at Devalia within the sanctuary. Within its chained fences, it covers all habitat types and wildlife of Gir with its feeding-cum-living cages for the carnivores and a double-gate entry system. The gigantic main gate swings open sideways. First to be seen are the stags. Then we have the darshan of our royal resident. The ‘ king ‘ of the forest gives a pose majestically with his ‘ queen’. After 5 minutes, the lioness shakes its head and walks away as if to say, ‘Don’t these rubbernecks have other business.’ There is a water trough in the vicinity and a rocky cave shelter built for the lions to get shade.
The safari is not over. Antelope, bear, a shy leopard, Nilgai and fox are all on view. Most of them ignore us. After the drive we come back to the riverfront and do some birdwatching. Gir is also a bird watcher’s paradise. The avian population in countless hues is eye-catching. That first night we are treated to a troupe performing an impressive fire dance before dinner. These people are Siddis, a tribe who arrived from Africa centuries ago. We hit our beds early after a light dinner. Next day, we get up at the crack of dawn. After temperatures of about 95F the previous afternoon, there is a chill in the air the following morning when we set out for our game drive. Our teeth chatter in the cold. It is puzzling how it can be so hot in the day and at night you shiver. Must be something to do with the extremes
of a desert climate. Swaddled in layers of woollens and with a DSL camera slung over my shoulder, we gulp down a cup of ‘garam chai’ and proceed to board the 6 seater open gypsy to start our safari. A guide provided by the Forest Dept accompanies us. Bookings for the safari have to be made online (www.girlion.in) (Rs.800 per trip (6 pax). Camera tickets are Rs 200 (this can be purchased at the counter). “Wildlife sightings are more frequent before sunrise,” announces our team leader. Our jeep meanders through the rugged, dry terrain of the forest. We first see some Chital. There are some 46,000 Chital in the forest, providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for 500 lions.
Other jeeps keep racing in front and behind. We bumped along in our Jeep with our excellent guide pointing out a neverending parade of wildlife – mongoose, honey buzzards, Chital, sambar (deer the size of a small horse), storks, woodpeckers, wild boar, and buffalo. Other residents are jungle cats, striped hyenas, golden jackals, mongoose, palm civets and honey badgers.
This was earlier the hunting grounds of the Nawabs of Junagadh. If it hadn’t been for the animal-loving Nawabs, the lions would have died out. In Gujarat more than a century ago, the Nawab was invited to
hunt the last remaining few, but he had a brainstorm and suggested preserving these marvellous beasts instead. Nawab Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi declared Gir as a “protected” area in 1900. His son, Nawab Muhammad Mahabat Khan III later assisted in the conservation of the lions whose population had plummeted to only 20 through slaughter for trophy hunting and the Gir forests were set aside for protection of the lions. This makes Gir one of the oldest protected areas in India.
We saw Forest rangers patrolling constantly. The census of lions takes place every five years. Special mention must be made of the ‘Cat Women of Gir Forest.’ During the 2010 census they counted more than 411 lions in the park. In 2015, a population of 523 lions were counted. The women who do the counting are of traditional Muslim tribes in neighboring villages. There are over 40 women ‘Van Raksha Sahayaks’, who seek only to protect the animals of the park. These women have worked hard to win cooperation not just from local villagers but also from Maaldharis, the semi-nomadic tribal herdsmen who live in the sanctuary. The lions are almost tame in the presence of the female guards who patrol on foot.
The landscape widens with fauna like Nilgai, Indian antelope, Chinkara and spotted deer. Our chauffeur halts the vehicle. The guide points to a muster of
peacocks and peahens. As a cool breeze sets in, the winged beauties spread out their wings and begin to dance as if in ecstasy, perhaps in the belief that it is about to rain. A priceless scene. All the vehicles stop to get a look.
Then we continue on in search of His Majesty. Vehicles roam for another half hour and go deeper into the jungle. The Sun rises higher. The guide admits that the lions are elusive ‘but you will see at least one’. The predators mostly hunt at night and return home early in the morning. Suddenly, there is a commotion. The jeeps stop and take up position between the trees. After a few seconds, silence prevails. And lo and behold! We notice the lion king with his family, ambling some 100 yards ahead of us at his own pace. What a magnificent specimen he was. He is unmindful of the prying eyes and the surrounding jeeps. The lioness too gazes at the visitors indifferently. On and off she turns back and glances at her cubs. The height of this big cat could be more than 6 ft. and it averages 2.75m in length. The King meandered along the track for a good 20 minutes and ignored us, intent instead on spraying every tree he came across to mark out his territory. It was wonderful to watch an animal behaving in a ‘real’ way despite our presence. Because the lion was padding along slowly, our guide was able to point out the differences compared to an African lion – a mane that grows only halfway round his head, and much paler fur – grey in colour when compared to the brown cousins in Africa.
The lions are closely followed by forest guards with big sticks. Their business is to take care of the injured or diseased lions. It is also their duty to see that there is no disturbance to them by outsiders. Lions are cared for so effectively in Gir. Some jeeps approach from the opposite direction also. But the lions stride towards them as if saying, “You won’t be at peril so long as you don’t disturb me.” Is this the lion swagger? Our jeep crawls behind them. The ‘ king ‘ sits under a tree with disdain, watching the proceedings. The cute cubs, looking like big kitten, play beside him.
When a lion’s stomach is full, it doesn’t care to hunt. Gir houses a colony of the Maldhari tribe. To protect their livestock, once in a while, a cow is offered to the lions. In turn, the lions don’t disturb the villagers. But the same is not the case with tigers. Lions are honest in their dealings. Call it “dignity” explains the guide. So it is not hard to understand why lions are crowned king of the jungle.
As the lioness deviates to another path, the ranger asks our driver to move ahead of the animal. He cautiously speeds up the vehicle and hearing the engine, the ‘queen’ turns her head towards us. As the jeep gets closer to Her Majesty we are a bundle of nerves and my heart misses a beat. Once the proximity is less than 5ft, the lioness opens her jaws wide with her knees slightly bent. Death seems near. As I am in the corner seat my heart comes into my throat. But within seconds, our
chauffeur dexterously drives past the beast. She struts back as if saying “Fear Me.” After the lioness disappears from the scene we realise we haven’t turned on our cameras. This is the beauty of a lion. It will warn you and face you bravely from the front, not pounce on you from behind like a tiger. In Gir Forest, attacks by lions on humans have never happened. It is due to this trusting and fearless nature that they had been hunted so easily and their numbers fell drastically. These noble creatures had been tricked by us cunning humans. Even though the Gir Forest is well protected now, there are still instances of Asiatic lions being poached.
As ever with wildlife-spotting, there’s serious one-upmanship among the guests. Back at the camp, a doctor from New York told us she had also seen a ‘cheetah.’ We were also told about the breeding centres for lions in Junagadh, which studies the behaviour of the Asiatic lions in captivity and also practices artificial insemination, besides caring for orphan cubs.
In the afternoon we are driven to Kamleshwar dam reservoir to see how many of its estimated 400 marsh crocodiles we could spot lurking just beneath the surface (quite a few). From here we also had a splendid view of both the Gir forest and a fiery sunset from a specially built watchtower. On our way back, we also visited Junagadh and Veraval beach and fishing port. You can also visit Somnath temple after your Gir visit.
Following a male lion on safari
Local man plays music for visitors at Sasan Gir
Dance being performed for visitors
Maaldhari man taking his cattle to graze
People of the Maaldhari tribe live inside the Gir forest
Van Raksha Sahayaks’ or female forest guards
Kamlesh dam reservoir
Lions feeding on Chital
Entrance to Gir
Winged creations at Gir
Lions asleep in Gir
The rugged and dry landscape of Gir
Gir lions drinking at water hole
Gir forest and river
Restaurant at Lion Safari Camp
Tent Interior Lion Safari Camp
Asiatic lion lodge
Private dining at Lion Safari Camp
Fire dance by Siddis at Sasan Gir
The Fern Gir Forest resort
Bird watching in Gir
Lion Safari Camp at Gir National Park
Mainlasnitdou[email protected]losdagfaeriscaasmanp Gir
Sit out at Lion Safari Camp
Gir lions facing tourist jeep
Lion cub playing
Lion cubs at Gir National Park
Lion tries to catch a bird
Gir Lions were hunted to extinction
Tourists waiting at a waterhole
Chital and peacocks crossing the road
Crocodile at the lake Even though the Gir Forest is well protected, some lions have been poached
Leopard of Gir on Edmund Knoll
Lioness with her cub
Blue Bull at Gir
Wolf in Gir reserve