Sunday, September 16, 2012
The last post at GirIf you want to see an Indian lion born free, and living free, you have to visit Gir, in Gujarat, and keep your fingers crossedHugh & Colleen Gantzer
THEY are the universal symbols of royalty. Their names have become titles of courage and are the commonest surnames in India. Singh, Sinha, Singha, Narasimha — all mean lion: specifically the Indian lion. Once upon a time, they had roamed the whole of West Asia, down through northern India and as far as the Narmada. Their ferocity, fearlessness and regality inspired the heralds of England to emblazon them on the crest of their kings. Ironically, the dedicated "sportsmen" of the Raj reduced them to just 12 by the end of the 19th century. Then, the Nawab of Junagadh called a halt. Today, more than 411 Asiatic lions roam free in 1,412 sq km of protected wilderness in Gujarat’s Gir. Clearly, now, the so-called Asiatic Lions should rightly be called the Indian lions.
This year, when spring was warming into summer, we drove into the green campus of the Gujarat Forest Department’s Sinh Sadan in search of these magnificent animals. A roaring lion is the state emblem. Gujarat is so proud of its lions that it refuses to allow them to be relocated in any other state.
If you want to see an Indian lion born free, and living free, you have to visit Gir. But even then, though your chances of seeing the king of the beasts in the wild are high, you can’t be sure. Make up your mind to enjoy the wilderness and its inhabitants, even the smallest ones, and keep your fingers crossed that luck will be on your side and you will see one of the Great Royals of Gir.
Spring was the right season. Most trees had shed their leaves and forest workers were sweeping them up and burning them to prevent forest fires. Consequently, visibility was clear for fairly long distances. We realised, once again, that when an animal at the top of the food chain is protected then everything lower down also thrives. There were herds of chital, their speckled coats flickering through the sun-dappled forest, drinking at the water troughs set up and filled by the Forest Department. There are 46,000 chital in Gir, more than enough to ensure that the predators, including the 311 leopards, are able to keep fit hunting for their natural prey. When we first visited Gir, an over-enthusiastic Governor had decided that the lions should be fed so that they would appear at the ‘Lion Show’. They began to lose their ability to hunt. We objected to this in our writings and, eventually, that travesty was stopped. The ecological balance of Gir was restored.
On this visit, to our relief, we saw something that confirmed this: langurs had teamed up with the spotted deer, dropping leaves and fruit to the chital grazing on the forest floor. From their high view-point atop trees, the langurs would also spot predators approaching from far away. Their hooting warning would alert the deer to flee, flashing the white on their tails as danger signals to other animals. The birds, clearly, were not bothered about the presence of lions. Lions, unlike leopards, don’t like scaling up trees. We saw the usual assortment of doves, wood-peckers and garrulous babblers, a spotted owlet fluffed up like a sage in a downy coat, a brace of fat partridges who seemed as curious about us as we were about them, and a brilliantly painted kingfisher. We also saw a pair of stone curlews, informally known as ‘Thicknees’. They looked as if they had arthritis but were as agile as curlews are expected to be. They are ground-nesting birds and they were guarding their scooped-out property on the forest floor.
Outside the park, we met a group of Sidhis. They are descendants of Africans reputedly brought to this area by the former Nawabs of Junagadh. They have integrated seamlessly into the ecology of Gir, while maintaining many of their customs and traditions. They told us that one of their villages was still in the National Park "But the lions don’t trouble us and we don’t trouble them. We live in harmony as our ancestors in Africa must have done. If, sometimes, an accident happens..." our informant shrugged, "we accept it."
Spotting the king
When we returned to Sinh Sadan, we met a family from Mumbai who were jubilant. They had spotted and photographed a whole pride of lions: a full-maned lion, two lionesses, and three cubs. "I wanted to get out of the jeep and cuddle them" gushed 10-year old Sania, "but their mother might have bitten me. No?" We agreed that that might have happened but that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. "Then why don’t you visit the Interpretation Zone?" she persisted, "You’re bound to see lions there. We did" We told her we had been there and even photographed a lion confronting our jeep on what he obviously considered was his personal road. The Interpretation Zone, however, is a large, fenced-in facility in which the lions live in limited freedom and where the Forest Department also has cages for old and infirm lions. We wanted to see lions living free in the wilderness of the National Park, hunting and fending for themselves.
That afternoon we were put in the hands of guide Ketan, who was also a photographer, and driver Ashish. We were told that they were very lucky: in animal spotting.
We passed a Maldhari herdsman grazing his buffaloes just outside a rather make-shift village. The Maldharis have lived in Gir, with their cattle, for many generations. Their settlements, called nesses, are protected by thorn fences which, apparently, lions avoid. But when they take their herds into the forest their bovines are likely to be attacked by lions and leopards: a ‘tax’ that most Maldharis seem to accept! They get paid for every one of their cattle killed by a jungle predator, and the natural fodder in the forest is so plentiful that it makes up for the loss. So they prefer to assert their right as forest dwellers, and stay on.
We met a Maldhari and his herd in the forest. He said a lion had been seen not far from his settlement this morning and his buffaloes were restless. A little later we spotted nervous chinkara, leaping away like ballet dancers. But their nimble-footed performance could have been triggered by our presence and not, necessarily, by an approaching predator. The sun was quite low in the sky, the light had softened, and we were giving up hope of ever spotting one of the lions of Gir when we heard the yap-yap! of frightened spotted deer. They stood just off the road, a little ahead of us. We drove up and saw that they were tense, their ears swivelled forward. Danger lay in front of them and they were ready to scoot. We raced ahead, Ketan mentioned a wooded ravine as a likely spot. We drove into it. Stopped. Ketan’s eyes were better trained than ours. Also, generations of survival in Gir have given lions a camouflage. Slowly, after our pupils had adjusted to the half-shadows of the forest floor, we saw her. There, stretched out in regal ease, was a magnificent lioness. She turned her head and looked at us with serene arrogance as the sunlight glowed in her amber eyes.
And, in the UK, the stylised icons of her ancestors still, very proudly, rule Britannia.