The Lions of Gir, Gujarat.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The lions stalking prey in Gir, Gujarat

(The story first appeared in the Deccan Herald, Feb 2014)

You can question other aspects of Gujarat’s development model but you have to hand it to  Narendra Modi for developing the super smooth highways. All Gujaratis are proud of their highways. And I can vouch for them, driving as I was all the way from Ahmedabad, via mofussiled towns of Wankaner and Gondal to finally reach  Gir , covering over 450 kms of well asphalted roads.

At Gir, however,  there was another Gujarati pride being fought for, though sadly at a more parochial level. Just a few days ago, (April 2013) the Supreme Court had ruled that Gujarat must share some of its lions with neighboring Madhya Pradesh. Conservationists welcomed the move. They have argued that lions concentrated in one pocket of the country could be wiped out in an epidemic.

 The Kuno-Palpur sanctuary was earmarked in MP but Modi, has till today been unwilling to share what he calls the   ‘pride of the state’.

Backing  Modi are the locals, the guides, the drivers and the hotel owners – all of whom depend on the lions for their livelihood in various ways. They believe the lions belong  to Gir and in Gir they will stay.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Chitals battle it out in Gir, Gujarat

According to a report in a  local newspaper the local wildlife researcher who had suggested the shifting of lions from Gir to MP had to run for his life when an angry mod confronted him after  hearing  the Supreme Court order.

Ibrahim , a guide at Gir said the lions would be poached in MP. “Twenty years ago we had sent a lion and three lionesses to MP. Till today no one knows what happened to them. Poaching is rampant in MP. The poachers from MP come here to kill lions.  Two years ago the poachers from MP had killed two lions and two cubs“, he said.

Ibrahim is from the Siddhi tribe which traces its ancestry to Africa, having landed in India almost 500 years ago. Because of their African origin some of them feel their lives are inextricably linked to  the lions. And they have chosen to work in the forests, many as guides and others as guards.

Maldharis are other indigenous people who don’t want to part with any of the lions even though they compete for space with them deep in the forests. Many of the Maldharis have been relocated outside the reserve but many more still live in the their traditional village  or  ‘ness’, within the Gir sanctuary.

If it was not for the lions’ overall good it would be touching to see the locals stand up for their felines.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Peacock shares the water trough with other feathered friends, Gir

But the pride for Gir’s lions extends well beyond Gujarat’s borders.  The Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) are the pride not only of India but Asia. These lions once roamed all across the Indian sub-continent and the Mediterranean in the West. They were then known as the Persian Lions. It was them and not their African cousins that fought the gory gladiatorial fights in decadent Rome.

Today sequestered in that small pocket in Gujarat they number 411. In the early twentieth century, trophy hunters had wiped them out from the rest of Asia and reduced their numbers to a dismal 15 in Gir. After the initiative by the then Nawab of Junagarh they were protected and from them on their numbers have only steadily increased.

Much like the lions of Africa, the Gir lions are easy to spot. They are just as lazy and prides of them can be seen sleeping in the thickets unmindful of the safari jeeps swarming around them. However appearance wise, the Asian and African males are markedly different from each other.  The African lions have a much fuller mane while the Asiatic lions are almost bald leaving their ears sticking out. The Asiatic lions are slightly smaller and have tufts of hair on their elbows and folds of skin running along their stomach.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Safari jeeps in Gir, Gujarat

 The safari guides at Gir dispense with the meticulous tracking tactics employed in all tiger reserves in India, which include pug-mark spotting, turd probing and keeping an open ear for the jungle sounds.

My safari guide knew exactly were to find the lions and within minutes of entering the sanctuary we spotted three lionesses near an artificial waterhole. Thankfully they were not sleeping but were in a pre-stalking mode, up on their haunches and bent low   at the forelegs. They were staring at a herd of Chital in the distance.  The lion’s dull tan coats blended well with the forest floor and the Chitals either did not see the lions or did not care, confident of outsprinting the cats at that distance.

The lions were perhaps not hungry but acting on instinct. Their patience for observing the prey was more than ours of observing them and we had to leave to look at other wonders of  the forest.

How to get here:

By Air:  The closest airports are at Diu (84kms away), Keshod 90kms away and   Rajkot (170kms away). Rajkot is connected with most Indian cities and has daily flights from Bangalore via Mumbai.

By Rail:  The closest railway station is at Veraval, Junagadh and Delwada. However the railway station at Rajkok is connected to many cities via various trains.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The Maldharis and their ‘ness’ deep in the Gir Forest.


 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Serpent on the tree in Gir, Gujarat

2 Responses to “The Lions of Gir, Gujarat.”

  1. Zehra says:

    Great peice Sanjay. I feel tempted to get up and go! You’ve got some great info here, about the tribes and all.But tell me is there cause for concern in what the locals say? Are the lions really in danger of being poached in MP? By the way I envy you. Wish I could live life this way- travelling and more travelling!

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Zehra.. You should go there when you are well and ready. The best time of course is dead of summer. Yes its true about MP. But the administration is at fault in the national parks everywhere. Instead of involving the tribals in saving wildlife they are alienating them by forcible eviction. Some of them then become excellent trackers for any poachers who are willing to pay them a good sum.

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