The mighty lions of Gir

Pride of gujarat

The mighty lions of Gir

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 km 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 months ago (April 2013), the Supreme Court had ruled that Gujarat must share some of its lions with neighbouring 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.

Under threat

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.

According to a report in the 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 mob confronted him after the hearing of 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 with 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.

A proud lineage

But the pride for Gir’s lions extends well beyond Gujarat’s borders. The Asiatic lions (panther aleo 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 20th 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 then on their numbers 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.

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 where 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 were 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.

Fact file

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

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

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