Gir National Park is one place where the Asiatic Lions still roam free.

This is the only place in the entire world where they still roam the jungles. Their very name reflects sheer power and beauty. They could once call Asia minor, Arabia and the whole region from Persia to India as their home but by the end of the 19th century their numbers dropped to a shocking 20 due to excessive hunting. Conservation efforts to increase their number over the years has resulted in their population rising to around 350 (2005 census: 359). These super carnivores are none but the awe-inspiring Asiatic lions whose population is now confined to the forests of GIR in Gujarat.

Set for the safari

It is to experience an encounter with these amazing animals that we began our safari early morning in an open top Gypsy at Gir National Park which is also a reputed bird sanctuary; home not only to native but also migratory birds. This 1412.13 sq. km.-national park, whose topography is formed of deciduous forests, grasslands, acacia shrub, wetlands including seven rivers, is home to 2375 different species of fauna of which 2000 species are insects, 37 species are reptiles and 38 species are mammals. No sooner did we enter the park than we were informed that a pride of lions was just a few metres away. What a way to start a day!

Along with our vehicle there were about four to five others, all earnestly searching the bush for the pride. Then we had the glimpse of a lioness who was resting amidst the trees. Close by was a young male lion which was feeding on a lamb.

We learnt that the lamb was actually a bait for leopards in order to put on a radio-collar to one of them. As we sat admiring the lion we heard that two lionesses with four cubs would probably cross our path if we went a little further. Sure enough the youngest members of the pride along with two lionesses were spotted on one side of the road ready to cross to the other side. One by one the vehicles switched off the ignition.

First, one lioness crossed the road with the four cubs following her. The other lioness stayed back until all the cubs had crossed and only then did she cross the road herself. What a sight it was to watch!

Bird watching

When they finally disappeared into the bush we moved ahead and we could see quite a few birds including the pied kingfishers, shikras, flycatchers and the eurasian thick-knees. We were also able to spot a yellow-wattled lapwing which we were longing to see for quite sometime. But we knew that the best time to watch birds was in winter when a lot of migratory birds come down (Kamleshwar dam at Gir is a great spot for bird watching).We spotted a couple of mongooses and a giant monitor lizard before the safari came to an end. We were amazed to see the Maldharis the nomadic herdsmen living among the lions. ‘Maldhari means ‘owner of animal stock' and their villages are known as ‘ness'. We could see even kids tend cattle here. After that great morning safari we were longing for more.

The evening safari started at about 3:00 p.m. and we got close up shots of many birds. As we went a little further we caught sight of an Indian Pitta, holding on to a dry leaf, which obviously wanted to get to its nest at the other side of the road. We waited quietly until it was sure that we were no trouble and then it flew into its nest to place that leaf in . We were informed that four lions were at a water hole just ahead. On reaching that water hole we saw two adult lionesses resting with two younger lions.

We could see how skilfully a lion hunts when the young female who had spotted a mongoose close by stalking its prey carefully. However the mongoose was too quick for this amateur hunter and swiftly climbed up a tree. The lioness attempted to follow the mongoose up the tree but could not climb as high as the mongoose could. When she wanted to jump down, her brother playfully prevented her from doing that. We had to leave these lions behind and were informed that we were pretty lucky to see those four cubs with two lionesses in the morning as their pride had made a kill deep in the jungle, so it was unlikely that they would be seen for a few days. It was a great day for all of us and these memories will live on forever and surely will compel to come once again to this paradise of lions.

Fact file

Location: Junagadh District, Gujarat

Nearest city: Junagadh

Wildlife: Lions, leopards, Sambar, spotted deer, blue bull, chousingha, chinkara, wild boar, Jackal, striped hyena, jungle cat, rusty-spotted cat, langur, porcupine, black-naped Indian, marsh crocodile or mugger plus 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, 250 birds and about 50 other species

Avani is a I Year MBBS student at Mediciti Institute Of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad