WORLD’S LAST ASIATIC LIONS IN GIR

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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

Photo credit: G. Brindha

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

Lion tribe

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

Nil­gai

Wolf in Gir re­serve

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