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The Sociable Lions Of Gir

Achal Dhruva witnesses a rare harmony between man and beast in the forests of Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

As Gujarat burned, engulfed with communal hatred, a day after the Godhra carnage, deep in the heart of Gir Forest, I saw a man standing nonchalant at an arm's length from a lioness! Being amidst the lions of Gir was safer than the company of men in those days.

I saw that harmony between man and beast midway through our morning jungle safari while cruising along the dirt tracks of Gir Lion Sanctuary. We would have missed the lioness completely if she had not been walking towards the track. As our driver brought the jeep to a halt, she paused in her stride staring hard. At close proximity to her, a Maldhari continued with his task of digging a road. Our excited chatter drew his attention to the lioness. Instead of fleeing, he simply stood and stared as the animal emerged from the bush crossing the road barely five feet from him. A brief glance and a swish of her tail as if to say goodbye and she melted away into the forest on the other side. The Maldhari got back to his job.

Living With Lions
"I don't bother you as long you don't disturb me." The Maldharis of Gir Forest have followed this royal 'dikat' for over a century coexisting peacefully with lions. Small settlements of Maldharis, known as Nesses, are scattered all over Gir Forest. Each Ness consists of six to eight houses made of timber, mud and thatch. The front courtyard is encircled by timber logs to protect the livestock from the carnivores. The rest of the area is fenced off with thorny brushwood. Houses have no doors. Integral part of Gir Forest, Maldharis, (livestock owners) comprising of Rabaris, Bharwads, Charans, Ahirs, Kathis, etc. moved to Gir due to lack of pastures after the agricultural revolution of 1950. They made the grasslands of Saurashtra their settlement especially Gir forest to avail good quality of grass and water. Cattle rearing is the main occupation of the Maldharis who earn their livelihood selling milk and milk products.

The man, I felt, must have nerves of steel. When asked how he could be so nonchalant in the face of such danger, his aged weather-beaten face crinkled into a broad smile. He shrugged off any suggestions of bravery saying, "Ae to rojnu thyu. Amhe toh raatna pan haliye, amena jungle maa rehvu hoya toh darine kem kaam chale. Koi di sinh ye amnhe witadya nathi, amhe banhe sampine rahiye chiye" (This is a daily affair. We even move about at night, how can we afford to be scared. After all we are living in their jungle. Lions have never troubled us and we live together peacefully).

It all seemed so simple. This scene was our second sighting of the morning, two hours into our second safari in Gir forest. Earlier within 45 minutes of entering the forest we heard the high-pitched alarm calls of a chital and a single loud call of a sambar, a sure sign of a lion on the prowl. We peered hard through the fading mist in the direction of the sound but there was nothing there.

The calls persisted, the king of beasts was out there somewhere but seemed reluctant to grant audience.

Suddenly, as we were cantering along, I noticed a movement at a distance to our right. There he was; a full-grown male approximately 12 years old watching us intently. Satisfied that we were stationary, he advanced out of the forest directly in front of the jeep crossing the road not more than 15 feet away.

He walked slowly and silently, paused directly in front of us scrutinising us with his regal stare and then walked off with a haughty flick of his tail. The 40-kms Raidi route (Sasan-Kankarinakka-Ratanpura-Pipripat-Khada-Kheramba-Dedakadi-Raidi-Bhambha kod-Sasan) we had chosen that morning had proved lucky. The Raidi route is one of the two most interesting routes of the eight that crisscrosses the 200 sq kms tourist zone.

We had covered the other best route Sasan-Khokra-Sisvan-Devadungar-Gambliamba-Kamleshwar Dam-Mindholiwada-Sasan but had failed to sight the beast. At a watering hole near Devadungar and near Kamleshwar Dam, our guide had information about a lioness and her cubs in the vicinity and their presence was confirmed by alarm calls but they remained in the cover of the forest. On the way to Devadungar is the interesting village called Sisvan inhabited entirely by Siddis, a tribe of black people. They were reportedly brought from Africa in the Swahili region by the Portuguese or the Nawab of Junaghad about 300 years ago. They have thoroughly assimilated and follow very few of their original customs like the Dhamal dance.

Kamleshwar Dam is an oasis in the dry landscape, an incongruous patch of blue in otherwise dominant shades of yellow and brown. It was nearing dusk when we heard the roars of a lion not too far away. Our guide informed that it was a male and was moving in the direction of the dam. A tense and anxious wait followed but to no avail. The roars ceased and it turned out to be a no show. What hurt most was on our return to Sinh Sadan, the forest guest house, we got to know another jeep had sighted the lioness and her cubs just after we had departed and also managed to see a leopard devouring a kill on the way to Devadungar. Rameshbhai Patel, our guide on the Raidi route, said on an average there are two to three lion sightings per week with the summer months of April and May as the best period.

Besides the double treat of lion sightings we also saw a host of other animals and birds on the Raidi route, a scenic trail covering the varying terrain of Gir including a hill offering a sweeping vista of the forest and a view of mount Girnar in the distance.

Our luck also held out during our visit to the Gir Interpretation Zone at Devaliya, 12 kms. from Sasan Gir. The zone, 412 hectares of chain link fenced area, presents Gir in a nutshell covering all types of habitats and wildlife. Created to reduce pressure on the tourism zone of the National Park and to provide an opportunity to view lions and other wildlife in a short period, it's a place where lion sighting is guaranteed and at an unbelievably close distance. We sighted all the four lions of the Interpretation Zone. Our first encounter was with a lioness cooling off in a clump of bamboo trees. Her tongue hanging out, panting in the heat, she tried hard to be oblivious to our presence. Excited to be at an arm's length of the lioness we just couldn't keep our voices down as we clicked away furiously. Fed up of the chatter she gave a grunt and walked off deeper into the forest. A little while later we came upon a bonanza. A lioness stretched out on the road and another one with a lion resting under the shade of the tree some distance away. Cool cat, she refused to move from the road. We had to go off the road to pass her and get closer to the other pair. They were totally at ease.

Suddenly the lioness we had left behind on the road began to roar, a series of low-pitched roars. Hearing it at that distance can scare you to bits. I froze with excitement and terror as she walked past brushing the jeep. All I had to do was extend my hand and pat her on the head. It was a very tempting thought but then I had only two hands and none to spare. She walked towards the male and nuzzled and kissed him before going behind the tree. She looked back once at the male and gave another roar. It must have been, "come here at once!" since the poor fellow heaved himself and did as ordered. I think she was trying to establish her right over the male and did not like the attention we were giving the other younger lioness under the tree. She was about 5 to 6 years old and positively sexy, if one can ascribe the adjective for a lioness. I was all set to sit back and watch for hours the unfolding drama when our guide said it was time to get back. No vehicle is allowed more than 45 minutes inside the interpretation zone.

It was my turn to roar in disgust!

Approach And Accommodation
Sasan Gir, a one-street village, is the headquarters and entry point of Gir National Park and Sanctuary. It is located 58 kms. from Junaghad via Mendarda and 42 kms from Verawal via Talala. Ahemdabad is 402 kms away. A railway station (MG) Sasan Gir is connected by train to Junaghad and Verawal but the journey takes too much time. The nearest airport is Keshod, 70 kms away. Besides the Taj property the other options are the Sinh Sadan, forest department Guest House built by the Nawab of Junaghad in 1911 and few lodges on the main street. Sinh Sadan has lush green lawns and houses the Orientation Center on its sprawling campus. Besides the large double beds at Rs 500 per day and Rs 1,000 for A/C ones, tented accommodation for two is available for Rs 200 and dormitory for Rs 50 per bed. The dinning hall serves vegetarian meals for Rs 45 and non-vegetarian for Rs 70. The lodges outside offer functional, small but clean double bed rooms with attached toilet at Rs 200-300 depending on season. For a safari into the park, private open gypsies are available at Rs 500 per trip. A trip into the Park is on one particular route and takes about three hours.