SUNDAY MAGAZINE

On the lion trail

EXPERIENCE

DIONNE BUNSHA

CALM AND MAJESTIC: Gir's lions are not too perturbed by tourists.

CALM AND MAJESTIC: Gir's lions are not too perturbed by tourists.  

SOMETIMES, even the open forest can get too crowded. Well, at least for the Asiatic lion in Gir. Their expanding population finds the existing Gir National Park too small, and younger lions are getting out of the protected area, right up to the coast near Diu, 80 km away.

Gir is home to the last surviving population of the Asiatic lion. That makes it pretty unique. Don't expect thick jungle with tall green trees. The dominant colour here is brown. It's 1,421 sq km of dry, deciduous forest and grasslands — dry being the key word here. The lion shares the forest with the leopard, the chital, the jackal, the wild boar, the peacock and the Maldharis, local herdsmen who have co-existed with the lions inside the forest.

For a population that's growing, it's still not easy to find the lions. Even though they are supposed to have reached Diu, you're not likely to see them prowling on the beach. Finding them inside the national park, where safaris are allowed, is difficult enough. You could drive around in an open jeep for hours seeing endless numbers of deer, chital and peacock, but there won't be any sign of a lion. They aren't shy of human beings. They're just lazy. They'd prefer to sit in the shade and come out to hunt only in the late evenings or at dawn, when it's cooler. For those who don't have the patience or didn't have much luck seeing lions in the wild, there's always the Gir Interpretation Zone at Devalia, 12 km from Sasan, an enclosed area where some lions are kept for breeding and tourism. You are packed into a bus and driven around the enclosure, and there's no way you can miss seeing the cats.

On the lion trail

To spot a lion in the forest, it's best to set out on a safari as close to dawn as possible, or hang around in the evening safari for as long as you can. Every morning, the forest department sends out its trackers to search for lions. So, it's better to try and keep in touch with the trackers so that you will know if a lion has been spotted on a particular route. Chatting with trackers will also give you an idea about where lions were seen recently and where they are likely to be found the next day. The lions are so familiar with trackers that they can sometimes identify them, allowing them to get close and even treat their wounds.

We were lucky enough to come across a tracker who had just spotted a lioness off the course of the road. So, we hopped off the jeep and walked down a small ravine. There she was, calm and majestic, not in the least bit perturbed by a bunch of tourists staring at her, taking photographs wildly without pausing. She coolly strutted towards us, then turned to the side and sat under a tree. Unlike the tiger and the leopard, the lion is not elusive and rather comfortable around human beings. A pride just couldn't care less, as long as you keep your distance. Often, it circles a Maldhari ness (settlement) and preys on their cattle. The Maldharis are used to it, accepting it as part of nature's cycle.

The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is different from the African lion in its genetic make-up, skeletal structure and appearance. It has a loose skin fold on the belly and its mane is less dense. The Asiatic lion once roamed the forests of Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia and India. It lived in the forests of northern India as far to the east as Bihar and Orissa, with the Narmada river marking the southern limit. By the 1880s, it had become extinct in the rest of India except Gir.

The last of the species is still in Gir because it is a compact, unfragmented ecosystem. And, since the time of the Nawab of Junagadh, there have been continuous conservation efforts here. The Nawab was shocked to find that only 12 lions remained in the grassland. In the early 1900s, he declared a ban on lion hunting and ensured their protection. The last census in April this year reported 359 lions, the highest-ever count. It's still an endangered species but over the years, numbers have been increasing. Yet, scientists feel that the species is in danger if the entire population is located at one place. If an epidemic strikes, the species could be wiped out. That's why a pride is to be shifted to a sanctuary in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh. But the Gujarat Government won't let it leave the State.

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Out of Africa?

GIR isn't only about the lion. There are other interesting places around as well.

En route from Rajkot, you can stop at Junagadh, a historic city with Ashoka's Buddhist monuments, Hindu and Jain temples, mosques and the Junagadh fort. It's flanked by Mt. Girnar, where the highlight is the Shivratri festival every year. Here, thousands of sadhus congregate for nine days of festivities.

Just two hours away is Gujarat's watering hole, Diu — a quaint little Portuguese island where alcohol-parched Gujaratis escape prohibition. Also living close to Diu are the Siddhis, a tribe of African origin, with a very distinct culture and music.

With the Siddhis and the lions, this western tip of Gujarat is perhaps the closest to Africa we will get.

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