The drive towards the Gir forest area slowly turned into a road lined with mango groves. Although, it was the middle of February and the plains of North India were still shivering, the mango trees in that part of western India were laden with flowers and a heady fragrance was hanging in the air. Delhi’s polluted air seemed like a bad dream! The bright orange ‘kesar’ mangos of the region are famous. But not as famous as the lions of Gir!
The last bastion of the Asiatic lion is the Gir Forest, and its adjoining areas. In the Indian state of Gujarat, the Gir National Park and Wildlife sanctuary was established in 1965. It has a total area of 545 sq mi, of which 100 sq mi is fully protected as national park and the rest is the wildlife sanctuary. The Asiatic lion, a majestic beautiful animal, belonging to the genus Panthera Leo, dominates the discourse as Gir approaches.
As the forest area came close, the road became lined with open dry deciduous forest. We hit the small touristy town of Gir towards late evening, excited about catching a glimpse of the lion in its natural habitat the next morning.
At 6 am the next morning we entered a big gate ‘Sinh Sadan’ or house of lion. It was pitch dark, but the safari station at Gir was bustling. The place was teeming with domestic tourists, taking away from the loneliness fatigue of COVID. Managed by the Forest Department, the place is smartly done up and professionally managed. The bookings are done online and in February two safari timings were available – morning 7 -9 and evening 4-6.
Dawn was still a faint light in the distant sky. It was cold, still we were raring to go as we boarded an open jeep. Apart from the driver, the GPS installed jeeps have a guide in attendance. They are permitted to take designated 3-4 routes in the park.
With a scratch of the wheels the jeep started with us perched behind. We entered the forest, and our guide declared ‘the lion is a royal animal’. Dawn had dressed the sky – but the sun had not yet emerged. The wind cutting across in the open jeep was icy; we covered ourselves with whatever we could and peered into parting darkness.
One could now see the dry, yellow scrub foliage of the forest. ‘Gir today has nearly 600 plus lions. They are spread in about five districts of Gujarat,’ As we jostled along the dusty pathway our guide showered us with information. Suddenly a bunch of beautiful peacocks caught the eye, sitting next to them were two white langurs (leaf monkey).
‘They are friends. You will always see them together. They warn each other when a lion is near.’
The light was covering the forest rapidly, but it was still cold in the open jeep. As we searched for the lion, we learnt that lions are family oriented and live in prides. They are nocturnal and during the day they sleep. Consequently, the safaris are early in the morning or around the time the sun is setting. Lions are never man-eaters. Unlike the tigers and leopards – they might kill a human being, but they do not eat them.
Suddenly, the jeep stopped at a turn. Pointing in the distant direction of a tree, our guide said, ‘see he is roaring’. Before we could see him, we heard him. He was merged in the landscape, as the yellowish Gir foliage provides excellent camouflage for the lions. Even from the distance the proud stance was discernable.
After the mandatory attempts at a good click with our phone cameras, we moved on. The deers, neelgais and wild boars made sporadic appearances on the sides of the path, with numerous peacocks adding colour.
In search of a better view, we drove past watering holes, and river beds looking for the royal beast. The Gir forest has seven perennial rivers running through the area, and a large variety of trees and plants.
Our search led us to a group of buffaloes being herded by a man clad in white clothes. A village with thatched roofs sprung into view where two children were playing. This was deep inside the thick jungle.
‘They are the ‘maldharis’ – they live in the jungle and co-exist with the lions. Their cattle are a great source of food for the lions, yet the maldharis never attack the lion. They are compensated for killing of cattle by the government and also have a right to community resources. There are instances both inside and outside the forest where people have refused to take the compensation as it is taken to be the lion’s due!’
‘Aren’t they scared?’ I asked
“The lion is a royal animal. As long as humans do not irritate or disturb them they do not attack humans. Often lions go into the fields of villages nearby; the farmer will continue to work while the lion sits in another corner. In fact, the farmers are happy since the lion’s presence precludes grass eating animals from coming to his field. They co-exist without troubling each other!’
As if to prove his point, our jeep stopped behind another on the path. On the left under some trees, a lioness was walking slowly.
Awestruck, we watched as it began to move towards our path. As our breath stopped, it nonchalantly crossed the path of the jeep in front. While we were glued to its regal journey, the lioness crossed the path into the jungle on the other side, never once glancing at the humans around.
Speechless at the close encounter we sped away only to chance upon a pride of two lionesses and two cubs hanging out together. A line of jeeps had stopped on the path and people watched the family not too far away. They lazed and cavorted around unfazed. The lions of Gir had been kind enough to grace us with ample appearance!
We finished our ride when the day had started in the sky. Our next stop was the Lion hospital, near the Park run by the Forest Department. Unlike the lions of the jungle, the sick and infirm lions would roar the moment they spotted someone. We also saw a pacing, man-eater leopard, that had come in a few days ago. The hospital has an ambulance, an ICU and a complete lab for the animals. Animal blood has the same composition as ours, only their regular limits are different, they have the same organs as us – inside we are all alike! It was proof that humans are basically a species of animal!
Gir is a treasure of flora and fauna, but the kingdom belongs to the lions. The conservation efforts have succeeded because the community outside and inside the forest acknowledge the value the lion in the forest brings to their life. The economy of Gir exists because of the lions – the people employed in the safari, the numerous resorts and hotels that dot the landscape, the touristy shops, small eateries – everything owes its existence to the lions. In return, the royal lion seeks to be allowed to exist in the jungle, undisturbed.
It makes one think – do animals have to provide to us in return to be allowed to exist? Or is the lesson that going forward we need to forge symbiotic relationships with the animal kingdom to ensure our mutual survival?
(Published on medium.com on 2-3-2021)