Gir National Park’s lions are peculiarly unafraid of humans. Some say it comes from the centuries of tracking, others say it’s because of the proximity to the Maldharis, a community of graziers who have always lived within the park. Still others say it’s just the nature of the beast. Writing in 1949, MA Wynter-Blyth, a famous naturalist said, “The lion is much bolder, more fearless of man and less cunning than the tiger and so is much more easily shot. This explains the disappearance of the noble animals from all its other Indian haunts whilst the tiger manages to maintain its numbers.” Tigers aren’t doing so well themselves these days, but what Wynter-Blyth said seemed to be true of the lions I met in Gir Forest National Park.
On the short flight from Mumbai, my head was swimming with all this history, these images of machan hunts, slaves and sahibs. Which was why arriving in Rajkot was a surprise. Mall-ed to the gills, this is a rich town, rife with jewellery shops and restaurants. It was difficult to imagine that the lions were just about three hours away. It was a featureless sort of car journey from Rajkot to Sasan. A good road, a scorching sun, an occasional sleepy field and a frequent factory wafting streams of noxious white or grey smoke into a blue sky… And then you’re there. Driving in, the first impression of Gir is, well… yellow. Yellow grass, yellow dust, yellow leaves on balding trees, stubby shrubs and thorny things everywhere. But if you look up, the sky is the colour of a Robin’s egg and a gaggle of gently undulating purple hills loom beautifully in the distance. The whole scene is raw, craggy, rugged, much like the loaded promise it holds: the sight of a big cat in the wild.
This forest is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Within our first hour there, we had spent 15 mins with a couple of mottled wood owls, seen a peacock dance for his mate, caught a fleeting glimpse of what our driver called dudhraj — the dazzlingly white male paradise flycatcher with an improbably long and fanciful tail — and seen a sleepy owlet, the size of a tennis ball, cuddled up in a tree-hole. Later, as we stopped to listen to the forest, high up on a bare treetop, we saw a crested serpent eagle — crest fluttering madly in the hot breeze — being harassed for no apparent reason by a jungle crow. Time and again, the crow would swoop down aggressively, and the eagle, obviously the more powerful, would do nothing but duck and look annoyed. We watched them till sunset when the park had to close. The driver adjusted the framed photograph on his dashboard — of not a god but a lion — started his rattletrap and we were off. There would be no big cats that day, but what we saw over the next few days was enough to last a lifetime.
Embedded deep in the psyche of the local people, the lions of Gir National Park are a source of great pride and cultural identity. Of course, no one seems to agree on how best to protect them, but that’s another story altogether. The tradition of lion tracking in Gir dates back to the times of the nawabs, the British and their shikars. Today, of course, the trackers are a part of the Forest Department, often equipped with no more than a walkie-talkie and a stick, keeping an eye on which lion is doing what, who had cubs, how many and how they’re doing. Sometimes barefoot, sometimes alone, with dust in their hair and the perennial red glow of bidis held in their fingers, they seem as feral as the lions they look for. If you’re lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, as I was, you may get to see a lion with one of them — on foot. Though I did get the feeling that this is or should be ‘against the rules’, it was a chance of a lifetime, and I took it.
A 5-min walk off the road, on a dry riverbed filled with smooth white pebbles, under the shade of a huge jamun tree, there she was. Lolling 15 feet away from me, a lioness was taking her afternoon nap. She had liquid gold for eyes, paws the size of dinner plates and a dark pink heart-shaped nose. She was gorgeous. And behind her, obscured by the foliage, there were two more. As I gazed at her lazing there, making the rough ground look like satin sheets, I felt the full impact of the generosity with which she hadn’t already come over and decapitated me. It’s impossible to describe in words the electricity of seeing an apex predator in the wild; to have what David Quammen so perfectly describes in Monsters of God as “the awareness of being meat”… and yet feel distinctly as if you are in the presence of divinity.
The lion once had a vast empire to patrol, walking its languorous walk from Southern Europe and Africa right up to Central India, striking panic and poetry alike in the hearts of humans. Everywhere it was found, it recurs in our culture as a symbol of power and majesty, either worshiped or given a pretty wide berth… until recently. While in most of Africa lions are still doing okay, they have been shot to extinction in Northern Africa and everywhere else in their historical range except in this dusty sliver of forest nestled in the practically waterlocked peninsula of Saurashtra. The people who live here have a name for each shade of its mane; they know their lions by heart, as their ancestors have for ages. The Gir Forest experience is more than just its lions — it’s a peek into what living with wild animals must have been like, a glimpse into what we’re letting go of.
Location: In the south-west of the Saurashtra Peninsula Distances 415 km SW of Ahmedabad, 65 km SE of Junagadh
Route from Ahmedabad NH8A to Chotila via Bagodra, Limbdi and Sayla; NH8B to Jetpur via Rajkot and Gondal; NH8D to Junagadh via Vadal; district road to Sasan Gir via Khadia and Mendarda
When to go: The sanctuary is open from Oct 16 to Jun 15. The summer months are scorching hot, with the temperature hitting 43º C. The best time to visit is definitely late Nov to early Mar, when the temperature can drop to a cool 10º C
Go there for Asiatic lions
About the Author
Tara Sahgal, 31 , herbivorous, crepuscular and often arboreal, lives and works in Mumbai. She is the editor of the Sanctuary Magazine, which is a wildlife bi monthly for children.