Go on a date with the Asiatic lion at the Gir National Park in Gujarat, the only place in India to see lions in the wild
A vehicle coming from the opposite direction informed us that a lion has been spotted and that we needed to hurry if we wanted to see him. Our gypsy rushed in the direction, straining to keep within Gir National Park’s speed limit. Suddenly, we spotted a large flock of parakeets hovering over a tree, flapping their wings, screeching madly. We stopped, what we thought would be for a few seconds, beneath the tree.
Slowly, it became clear to us that one of the birds had its head stuck inside a hollow high up in the tree and was trying to pull it out. But wait, it didn’t seem like its head was merely stuck. While the parrot was trying to pull away, something was trying to pull it inside the hollow. Was the bird’s head caught in the jaws of a snake that might have been hiding in the hole, the driver of our Gypsy wondered. A non-violent Gujarati, the forest guard accompanying us wondered if he should climb the tree and help the bird. All of a sudden, the bird gave a mighty tug and was free of whatever was trying to catch it.
Within seconds, out peeped a large monitor lizard, its thick lips covered in bird feathers, looking with some anguish at the prey that got away. Quite spontaneously, we clapped in unison at the plucky bird, which by then had flown down to a bush, offering us a glimpse of its blood-spattered face. It seemed like the poor bird had lost an eye. There was little that we could do. The jungle will decide its fate, said our forest guard.
We were a good 20 minutes late and the royal beast was gone. “Where were you all this time when all the vehicles in the forest had gathered here to see the lion? Did you think the animal would wait for you to arrive?” the forest guard who was posted at the area where the lion had been spotted retorted angrily. But we were still reeling from the parrot’s dramatic escape that no one regretted out missed appointment with the lion.
Located in Gujarat, Gir National Park is the only place outside of Africa, where you can observe lions in the wild. According to the Gujarat Tourism website, until the early 19th century, the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), roamed across vast areas in South and Southwest Asia, as far as Greece to the west and Myanmar to the east. Then, largely due to habitat destruction and trophy hunting, by about 1860, nearly all the lions outside Gujarat had gone extinct. The last Asiatic lion in India outside of Gir was killed in 1886 at Rewah.
In 1901, Lord Curzon was offered to be taken lion hunting while visiting the princely state of Junagadh. Noting that these were the only lions left in Asia, he declined, and reportedly suggested to the Nawab of Junagadh that it would be better to conserve the lion population. Under the Nawab Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi and his son, hunting of lions was banned, and Gir was turned into a protected reserve. Gir was declared a sanctuary in 1965, covering an area of 1153.42 sq. km. The National Park, spread over an area of 258.71 sq. km. was carved out of the sanctuary.
We completed the rest of the safari and saw the usual mix of peacocks, spotted deer, sambar and nilgai. We even caught a couple of spotted owlets nodding in their tree holes. We almost missed a few nightjars expertly camouflaged among the branches, but our patient BNHS naturalist, Asif, ensured that all of us got to spot the birds—“Look for the hump on the branch,” he said while guiding us towards the nightjars.
After a brief halt at the Sinh Sadan, the forest department’s office and tourist complex at Sasan Gir on State Highway 6, we returned to our lodgings in Lion Safari Camp. Located in Chitrod village, next to the Hiran river, our tents were set within a sprawling mango orchard. The trees on the opposite bank housed colonies of egrets and storks, so we had plenty of opportunities for birding in and around the resort.
Soon after tea, we were invited to watch a dance programme by members of the Siddi community, whose ancestors were from Africa. Although noone can say for sure how these African people came to settle in India, there are two widely circulated theories. According to one, a Nawab of Junagadh fell in love with an African woman, who accompanied him to India. She brought a hundred slaves with her who settled here. Another theory suggests, the Portuguese presented some African slaves to the royal household of Junagadh. According to a Siddi forest guard I met on one of the safaris, the community has managed to retain some of their age-old rituals.
The next morning, we were up early. The safaris begin a little after 6am, but one has to queue up at Sinh Sadan for the allotment of routes and the compulsory forest guard from the Reception Centre located here. Even though it was height of summer, there were quite a few vehicles. The popularity of Sasan Gir is clearly on the rise, and tourists often combine a visit here with their trips to Somanth and Diu.
For the morning safari, we got route number 4. The tourist zone in the national park is divided into seven zones, with overlapping routes. We entered via the Kankai forest check post. All around us was the dry deciduous forest of Gir Sanctuary—a semi-arid zone that was bone-dry in summer and almost entirely devoid of green. A patch of forest with a peacock framed within the vignettes of yellow and brown seemed more like a 3-D painting.
With the temperature in the shade rising above 40̊ Celsius, the deer and the peacocks would congregate at waterholes set up by the forest department or the wells near Maldhari tribal settlements. The Maldharis live inside the forest and are cattle grazers. Several times, we came across their cattle roaming inside the forest with a lone Maldhari guarding them.
As we neared the Kamleshwar Dam on the Hiran river, we could see traces of green. Completed in 1959, its water is used for irrigation. The road went along the embankment and ended at a watch tower. We could see crocodiles of various sizes basking on the pebbled bank of the river. Here and there were open-billed storks, cormorants and darters.Several safari routes overlap at the dam, and visitors are allowed to alight from their vehicles here. The background of the dam is clearly a popular selfie point. The place soon got crowded with smartphone-toting tourists, and we beat a hasty retreat.
No lion this time either, but we were treated to multiple peacocks, lapwings, owls, deer and nilgai. However, we had the afternoon safari to look forward to. This began around 3pm and the forest was like a burning cauldron. The deer and other animals rested in whatever shade the scrub land offered. We stopped awhile to watch a huge wild boar at the water hole.
On our third day, as we left for the morning safari, the forest guard had some good news. A pride of lions had been spotted along the route allotted to us. As our Gypsy rolled along the forest trail, we noted two other vehicles standing near a clump of bamboo. They beckoned us to hurry up. The pride lay mostly hidden within the scrub but one lioness sat right out in the open. As cameras whirred, she looked at us with some disdain and then turned her head away.
As other vehicles began to arrive, the guard posted on duty asked us to move on. Usually, a guard is posted whenever lions are spotted near safari routes to maintain law and order and to ensure that no one gets off their vehicles. It surely was our lion day. On the evening safari, we saw a large male sitting among the bushes. A few yards away, a lioness slept, oblivious of our presence. If the guard had not pointed them out to us, we would have missed the other members of the pride who sat further inside the brush, their tawny coats merging with the surrounding brown. It was a memorable way to end our Gir adventure.
Rajkot, with its airport and railway station, is 165km from Sasan Gir. The other nearby domestic airport is Diu. The nearest railway station is Junagadh.
Where to stay
There are plenty of options, from budget hotels and the forest department’s tourist complex in Sasan Gir to plush resorts scattered around the sanctuary. Some of the leading resorts are the Lion Safari Camp (from Rs12,000 doubles plus taxes; campsofindia.com/), The Gateway Hotel Gir Forest (gateway.tajhotels.com), the Gir Birding Lodge (located next to the Bambohod forest check post; girbirdinglodge.com/) and The Fern Gir Forest Resort (fernhotels.com).
The forest is open for tourists from Oct 16 to Jun 15. Winter is the best time to visit. For the Gir Jungle Trail, morning safari last from 6am to 12pm; evening safaris from 3pm to 6pm. For the Devalia Safari Park, closed on Wednesdays, the timings are 8am to 11am and 3pm to 5pm. You can book e-permits at girlion.in. Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Limited (gujarattourism.com) operates a 4D/3N Saurashtra Darshan Tour, which includes Gir.