world's last Asiatic lions
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 were 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 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. 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 dhokla and Ragi roti we move out at 4 pm.
Wildlife sighting is possible in Gir in two ways. The first one is at Devaliya Park, which is open throughout the year, and 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 five 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 bird-watching. 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 95 F 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 DSLR 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. "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.
We bumped along in our Jeep with our excellent guide pointing out a never-ending parade of wildlife – mongoose, honey buzzards, Chital, sambar, storks, woodpeckers, wild boar, and buffalo. Other residents are jungle cats, striped hyenas, golden jackals, 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.
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.
Then we continue on in search of His Majesty. Vehicles go deeper into the jungle. 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 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. 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.
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.