A funny anecdote that I heard from my work colleague regarding the lions in Gir had me haunting the online travel forums for information and thus the destination for our annual holiday was finalized…Gir National Forest and Sanctuary!
My husband and I were all excited for the trip since we both love wildlife and this was our first jungle safari. I had my fingers crossed and hoped desperately to see the King of the jungle.
We took the Saurashtra Express from Bombay Central on 3rd Dec and reached Junagadh station on 4th December at 1:30 pm in the scorching heat. Although we knew that ST buses are available from Junagadh to Sasan village, we opted for a private Taxi because of the unbearable heat. (Stated 1000 Rs and bargained down to 900 Rs) The chatty driver was of the opinion that 50% of the people left Gir in disappointment since they were not able to spot the lions and so to at least glimpse of a lion we should definitely visit Dewalia Park. But his pessimism did nothing to dampen our hopes.
We had not made previous hotel bookings, but we had heard of Rainbow hotel that provided accommodation at a reasonable price through a friend. We checked out a few other places first but either they were all too expensive, considering that we were keen on the wildlife and we did not intend to swim or go to a gym or stay in the hotel all day or else too shabby. So in the end we settled for Rainbow Hotel which is a good choice for a budget traveller.
The next day 5th December 2011, we were up at 4:00 AM & by 5:00 AM we were standing in the queue outside Sinh Sadan for the permit. Since this was not the peak season, only permits for only 30 vehicles were allowed per safari. There is a board outside that displays the safari permit status each day. We were surprised to see advance bookings on the board since on any of the forums, websites, we had not heard of it. When we enquired about it later, we were told that visitors could send a fax at Sinh Sadan and book safaris in advance.
Finally after completing all formalities, our vehicle entered the Safari gate at 6:30 AM. My first ever safari…wow, that first half an hour in the jungle was so exhilarating, that I felt that even we did not view a single lion, I would still cherish the trip. An open gypsy, a small dust track and the beautiful jungle with all its sounds on both the sides!
The first animals that we spotted were the Chital, the spotted deer, which is the preferred prey of the lions. Deer have this way of pricking up their ears, becoming still and looking at you which makes me feel that they are posing for a picture every time I see them. The numbers of this deer have increased from about 4000 in 1974 to 45000 in 2010. This makes Gir a very healthy forest, since there is plenty of prey for the lions. These deer give birth twice a year. The Male deer have antlers that they shed every year. The antlers only serve the purpose of attracting the females and as soon as the mating season is over they shed them in order to appear as females & disguise themselves from the predators… Why? Because the predators are alert and know that the males are weak after the mating period (Lol).
Next a Sambar deer family crossed the track from ahead of our vehicle. A male, a female and a calf! We observed them for a couple of minutes clicked pictures and then went ahead.
The guide, Issa bhai had an experience of 12 years in Gir and informed us that majority of the trees in the Gir forest were teak trees. He pointed out a Gum tree to us with its white bark. The white bark is used as a cover for capsules.
Next we came across a forest tribal called a Maldhari with his camel. These tribals primarily raise cattle and supply milk to the villages near the Forests. These are the only people permitted to live inside the Sanctuary area and they live in small groups of hutments called Nesses. The camels are used for travelling during the monsoons when the tracks become muddy and inaccessible during the rainy season. There were around 300 of the Maldharis living in the forest earlier, but around 200 something accepted the government compensation and moved outside the forest. The rest still live inside the forest but in harmony with the lions, even though the lions do feast on their cattle whenever they find one that has strayed from the herd.
Then we came across some lion pugmarks and shortly later we found a rescue van parked at the edge of the track. The driver of the rescue van informed us that there was a pride a little ahead. We quickly drove there and found three lionesses and two cubs walking along the track ahead. In a few minutes four other vehicles also reached the spot and we spent a wonderful ten minutes photographing the magnificent beasts as they occasionally walked, sat for a few minutes and then walked again. The lionesses did not seem to be concerned by our presence at all and coolly watched us. Since the vehicles are not allowed to stay on a spot for more than ten minutes, we reluctantly drove away although we hadn’t had our fill of looking at them. It is quite commendable that rules of the park ensure that the animals are not disturbed and the guides and the drivers strictly abide by them.
Next the guide pointed out a rose necked parrot and a yellow footed green pigeon to us. There were no further lion sightings that day and the glorious three hour safari eventually ended at 9:30 AM.
The next day, 6th December, we went for the safari at 3:30 AM and this time we encountered a male lion. Unfortunately he was sleeping behind some bushes in the shade a little far away from the track and we could not take a good enough look. Still we managed to get a not so good picture by using the zoom feature of the camera. We did not spot any more lions after that, but we came across a female leopard much to our delight. She was very quick however and we could not follow her for more than a minute. Like a flash of lightning, she bolted away into the brush where we could not stalk her. There were no more sightings that day. We noticed that as compared to the morning safari we saw very few animals during the afternoon safari.
7th December, we again did the morning safari. This time we chose the Kamleshwar Dam route. Fifteen minutes inside the gate and we came across a male lion, but alas, he had his back to us. He sat for a minute, turned his head sideways, then suddenly there came a roar of another lion, which made him get up and walk away further into the jungle. Once again we were disappointed that we could not see a male lion. The dam itself was beautiful and we watched the sunrise there. Occasionally we could spot the tip of a crocodile coming up and then again dicing down into the water. There were many birds along the banks of the dam including a few peacocks. However the guide that we had was not very resourceful and could not identify any of the birds. The rest of the safari was uneventful.
8th December – This was our last day at Gir and we decided to do the 9:30 AM safari, hoping that we could find a male lion. We came across two locations enroute where a male had been spotted in the morning, but by the time we reached the spot, he had moved away. However we came across the same pride of lionesses and the cubs that we had seen the very first day. They were sleeping peacefully under a shaded grove of trees. One or two of them moved sporadically but did not really wake up.
Overall, the trip had been fantastic, but we wanted to take every chance that we had of going inside the jungle again. We were leaving for Diu by road and so we fixed up a private vehicle that would take us first to Kankai Mata temple inside the heart of the forest and then continue on our way to Diu. Our efforts were rewarded and we had an amazing sight of a male leopard. His Royal Highness was walking on the track when our driver spotted him. We stopped the vehicle and cut off the engine. He then walked across to the side of the track. He stopped walking and looked at us haughtily. Then he sat down and gazed at us almost for a whole minute. We were thrilled to bits and took a few pictures. Then he suddenly got up and walked off as if we had bored him! J This sighting was by far the most satisfactory like the icing on the cake.
To sum it up, Gir, the last home of the Asiatic lions is an awesome destination for wildlife and I recommend it thoroughly to all wildlife enthusiasts. The Sasan village still retains its rustic charm and is not yet commercialized. The Government is doing a fabulous job in conserving the wildlife and we hope that they continue to do so. Cheers!
Keep up with more news about the Asiatic lion and read related articles: