The Asiatic lion which, thanks to hunting, forest-clearance and poaching, has been extinct in the rest of India since the 1880s, survives in the wild in just 1150 square kilometres of the gently undulating Gir Forest. Gir National Park, accessed via Sasan Gir, 60km southeast of Junagadh and 45km northeast of Veraval, holds around 350 lions in its 260 square kilometres. They share the land with Maldhari cattle-breeders: many families have been relocated outside the sanctuary, but those who remain are paid compensation by the government for the inevitable loss of buffalo to marauding lions. Gir also shelters around two hundred panthers. In 2008, it emerged that some tourists had been paying to watch lions devour tethered cattle in cruel – and illegal – “baitwalla shows”; if anyone approaches you about one of these shows, inform the park’s management team.
There is a well-presented orientation centre to the right as you enter the walled-in park headquarters; close by is a crocodile breeding centre. Across the road from the orientation centre, permits can be obtained at the park information centre. Entry for a vehicle seating up to six people is $40 [Rs400] during the week; at weekends and during festivals prices rise by twenty-five and thirty-three percent respectively. There’s a mandatory guide fee of Rs50 per vehicle, and each person has to pay a sum of Rs250 [Rs50] as camera fee. You’ll need to hire a jeep, available at the orientation centre (Rs700/2hr 30min–3hr trip). Even though some of the fees are priced in dollars, you have to pay in rupees. Though sightings are far from certain, the lions seem not to be disturbed by jeeps. Summer is the best time to spot them.
For a guaranteed sighting, head for Dewaliya, a partially fenced-off area of the park known as the Gir Interpretation Zone. Jeeps (Rs200 return) leave regularly from Sasan Gir; once in the centre, you get a surprisingly good impression of the lions “in the wild” here – they still have to hunt their food even if the deer have limited space to escape.
The Asiatic lion
The Asiatic lion
The rare Asiatic lion (panthera leo persica) is paler and shaggier than its more common African cousin, with longer tail tassles, more prominent elbow tufts and a larger belly fold. Probably introduced to India from Persia, the lions were widespread in the Indo-Gangetic plains at the time of the Buddha. In 300 BC Kautilya, the minister of Chandragupta Maurya, offered them protection by declaring certain areas abharaya aranyas, “forests free from fear”. Later, in his rock-inscribed edicts, Ashoka admonished those who hunted the majestic animals.
The lion was favourite game for India’s nineteenth-century rulers and by 1913, not long after it had been declared a protected species by the Nawab of Junagadh, its population was reduced to twenty. Since then, Gir Forest has been recognized as a sanctuary (1969), and a national park (1975), and their number has swelled to around 360. However, they remain under serious threat from poachers, while illegal timber-felling in the forest is still common. Three major roads and a railway line bisect the park, which also has four temples that attract over eighty thousand pilgrims each year; all this produces noise, pollution and littering. Moreover, when lions stray from the sanctuary – an increasingly common occurrence – there have been attacks on humans and livestock. Plans, meanwhile, to create another reserve outside Gujarat – to reduce the risk of the cats being wiped out by a particularly contagious disease or infection – continue to be resisted (for political rather than conservation reasons) by the state government. For more info, see w www.asiatic-lion.org.