Sociable Lions Of Gir
Dhruva witnesses a rare harmony between man and beast in the
forests of Gir Wildlife Sanctuary
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.
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.