Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Making teams tick - 5 things even I can tell you

ThoughtWorks is a company of really smart people - we base our business on it. As part of my job at this company, I am privileged to work with the smartest of the smarts. Some of our best consultants come to ThoughtWorks University and that's what makes the program as good as it is today. On the side, I've become a bit of repeat practitioner in putting teams together in a high intensity performance environment. Over the last few years in this firm, I've put together over 20 teams and fortunately each team has made the company proud with its performance. You could say that I know a thing or two about making teams tick. While that may only a be a conjecture, I'd like to share with you what I've learned while working alongside some really smart individuals.

Set Context

At ThoughtWorks, my favourite word is context. Context is what we need to perform effectively. Context provides the background for why we do the things the way we do them. Context often illuminates the very meaning of what we do. To set context is perhaps the most important part of building a new team. My colleague Patrick Kua is an absolute hero with setting context. I use a lot of his onboarding patterns to get new teams up to speed with the rationale, background and mechanics of our work.

Give them Freedom

I strongly believe that when you put a group of smart people together and they agree on the goal they wish to achieve, they will find effective ways to get there. ThoughtWorks University v2 is a great example of this - even rookies prove this hypothesis. In my time at ThoughtWorks, I've noticed that it's usually enough for me to set context, share some broad guidelines with my new team and then just let them do their thing. Sure, they'll make mistakes. If we can plan some slack to allow people to learn, we can easily mitigate that risk. Sure, they'll need guidance. That's where my experience comes in.

Avoid the 'postman pattern'

One of my previous bosses was a nightmare to work with. All she ever did was pass on work via email. We never caught up, she never worked alongside me or my colleagues. She sat in her ivory tower, while her minions slogged away. I call this the postman pattern. I try to consciously avoid this kind of aloof behaviour. This to some extent has been my Achilles heel as well, but I believe the only way to have influence in a team, is to work within it. For as much as I can, I work with my teams on a daily basis. When I can't work alongside them, I try to step away and remove blockers instead. There's no point trying to operate by remote control. Either earn your right by working with the team, or be ready to relinquish it.

Shorten the feedback loop

When people are new, they will make mistakes. They will also taste success. The key is to ensure that they can recognise these occurences and know how to repeat them (in case of successes) or learn from them (in case of mistakes). This is where a commitment to continuous feedback becomes crucial. I'm a big believer in the value of continuous feedback - in fact I know some teams in ThoughtWorks that use Rypple to facilitate this process. Feedback doesn't have to be a grand event. It can just be a few lines that strengthen someone's confidence or improve their effectiveness. And by the way, there's no harm in letting someone know they're wrong. I created a course on this some months back - take a look

Play the facilitator

My colleage at ThoughtWorks, Angela Ferguson often used to speak of her role as a project manager being more like that of a facilitator. I think she's quite right. If we truly want to make our teams succeed then our biggest responsibility is to remove blockers from the way. Quite often it's also about absorbing external pressures so the team can perform effectively. Often it also means connecting people to people. This in my view is crucial. There are several problems to which a team may not have solutions. This is where connecting to people outside the strongly knit team helps -- tapping into the power of weak ties. I've been around for a while. My job gets me to know a lot of people and connect with them on social networks as well. I use this strong network to get my immediate team connected to other ThoughtWorkers when the need comes by.
I'm obviously no leadership or team building expert. I'm sure there's heaps more one could do when setting up and working with new teams. All I've added here is from my own experience - do you have any ideas you want to add? Feel free to drop them in the comments section of this blogpost. Next week, we'll be back to my musings on social business.

Photo credit: √Čole

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Where's the Big Cat Trail going in 2012?

A bit early to speak of this, but I do have some tentative plans. The map below is indicative of my planned Summer 2012 trail. Now obviously, I can't do this by myself and I'll perhaps hold on for sometime to find people who want to join in. For now my plans are to do the first three destinations over weekends preceding the actual trail - so hopefully those should be easy ones for folks to join me on. More about this in a few months.

View Big Cat Trail 2012 in a larger map

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fun is Serious in Social Business

When I went to Ranthambore this year, I was pretty awestruck by the glory of the men's moustaches there. As some of you know, I was inspired enough to grow my own moustache. A week down the line, when I was back at work I thought of the Movember tradition and wondered if people would be willing to donate to a charity if I kept growing my moustache. My colleague Nikhil's been growing one of his own -- we could potentially double up. Without a second thought, I posted a poll on our social business platform - myThoughtWorks. Now wait a minute - was that related to work in anyway? Was there an ROI to allowing a posting of that nature? Errrm... no! I personally think there's value in such a thing though. That value is fun.

In a way, I consider myself fortunate to work for a company that lists 'Fun' as a value. It's quite easy to get very uptight in social business. It's quite easy to forget that the water cooler has gossip, the team rooms have jokes, colleagues have fun with each other and that we often strike strong personal relationships at work. A true social business platform needs to mirror these real aspects of human behaviour. In today's blogpost, I want to outline a few patterns that you may actively want to foster in your community to encourage the value of fun.

Help people find others with similar interests

If you've read the book First Break all the Rules, it links to a Gallup study that claims to reveal the formula for innovation in the enterprise.

"Employees who have best friends at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, while those who have at least three "vital friends" at work are 96% more likely to be satisfied with their lives." - Gallup

There obviously is a certain importance of emotional connection to the enterprise. You're less likely to leave if you have friends in the company. Friendship stems from common ground. Common ground emerges from common interests. Simple implementations such as profile tags and people search can help people find other people with similar interests. What's the ROI? Is retaining your employees valuable for you? Is 96% employee satisfaction valuable for you? Does employee engagement mean much to you? If the answer to either of these is yes, then you perhaps should care.

Simulate the Gossip Lounge

Whether you like it or not, your people are saying things. Some of these are useful pieces of information, some are musings, some are questions, some are pieces of feedback for you to react on. Think of the way you react to your network on Facebook. Simulating the gossip room on your social business platform allows you to have a constantly updating view of what people are saying to each other. It's fun for people to broadcast their views - it's valuable for you to listen to them. What do people care about? In my case it seems to be the speed of myThoughtWorks in Australia. In your case it could be a fascination with moustaches!

The Gamification Phenomenon

"In other words, with games, learning is the drug." - Raph Koster (theory of fun)

Still a topic of debate, but we can't deny that we're brushing shoulders in the workplace with a gamer generation. Heck, this may not even be a new phenomenon. As Byron Reeves says though, the current 'gamer' generation has a few strong beliefs:
  • competition is fun
  • failure doesn't hurt
  • risk is part of the game
  • feedback is best when it's immediate
  • trial and error is the best plan
  • bosses and rules are less important
  • group action is common
In his talk at DevLearn, Byron argued that play is not the opposite of work. Play on the other hand can facilitate interest in work. In that talk, Byron showed us how doctors are playing games at $15 an hour to only improve their diagnosis skills. This can't be opposite of work. There's some obvious benefit that gamification has towards individual motivation. There's perhaps a reason why you're so addicted to Angry Birds on your iPhone or Harbour Master on your iPad. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you can make a dull job interesting by gamifying it. That's just putting lipstick on a pig. What is interesting is how badges, points, reputation systems can help add a fresh level of interest and motivation to knowledge sharing, feedback, personal learning and challenging work. How can people get immediate feedback for desirable behaviour on your platform? How can you recognise the most active contributors? How can you reward achievements without promoting a class culture? Check how Foursquare gives badges - can you try something similar?

Learning at work, but not just about work

People are people and have more dimensions to them than just work. People want to learn about photography, origami, art. They may want to practice a sport. Going back to the thought about helping people find others with similar interests, it's also crucial to help people pursue their non-work passions through the company. For example, I've discovered a passion for photography; I work in a company of geeks and many geeks like photography. The fact that ThoughtWorks allows us to have a special interest group on photography on the social business platform means a great deal to some of us. It's an opportunity to share our work amongst people we know and learn from each other about lenses, photography tips and what not. This has no direct impact on the company's bottomline but again it tells me that the company is willing to share their investment in my personal growth and also it allows me to make connections with others in the enterprise. If you believe Granovetter, then it's the weak acquaintances that have solutions to your toughest problems. The guy who runs the photography interest group could be the business analyst who can help you with that tough problem on your project. Who knows what solutions some of these weak ties can lead to?
While I think we're starting to cross the chasm with adoption of social business platforms in the enterprise, there's still a great amount of thought we need to put in so these platforms mirror common human behaviour. To overuse a cliche, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and perhaps an even duller knowledge worker. The ideas I've put out on this blogpost don't even cover the tip of the iceberg for this crucial aspect of social business. At ThoughtWorks, we take fun seriously but even we have miles to go with the way we're integrating fun into our collaboration platforms. I'd love to hear of ideas that you may have in this space - fun means heaps to this company. Comment unabashedly so I can learn from you!

On a sidenote, I'm hosting RubyConf India this week and while it's quite unrelated to the stuff I blog about I'm quite excited to be master of ceremonies for a second time. If you happen to be there by any chance, do say hello. I'm sure it'll be great to catch up.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 5 - Jim Corbett National Park

There couldn't be a better way to end the big cat trail. While my photography form didn't hold it's own at Corbett, I can safely say that being in the Terai is the real deal when it comes to Indian forests. There's no other forest in the subcontinent that is home to 227 tigers, several thousand Asiatic elephants, 585 species of birds and more than 30 species of reptiles. In short, an extended stay at Corbett has to be a wildlifer's dream. Corbett does have it's ills, but let me blend them into my experience report.

Corbett is one of the most frustrating parks to book accommodation for. You'll be surprised that I say this, because a web search will yield several hotels around the park. The fact is that if you're serious about wildlife you want to stay away from the noisy boors who'll come to park for a drive because they have nothing better to do. Staying in one of the outside resorts means that you'll enter the forest with these people and each time you see a tiger, there'll be a mini traffic jam with people shouting like it's a fish market. So, most wildlife enthusiasts choose to stay at one of the several forest rest houses in the park - the most popular of these being Dhikala. Dhikala is about 49 kilometres from the Dhangari gate of Corbett Tiger Reserve and is in the thick of this magnificent jungle. Only residents at the rest house can drive through the safari routes here and getting accommodation is so tough that only enthusiasts take the trouble.

To tell you the fact, the reservation system is from the dark ages. You fax them a request months prior to your arrival. You keep calling them every day to follow up on your request. You then send them a demand draft when they confirm your booking (yes, even electronic transfers don't work). All this, and you now need to find a good safari jeep and a good driver. After all that trouble, I still wasn't able to get accommodation at Dhikala for both my nights and I ended up getting a night at Dhikala and a night at Bijrani, a rest house slightly more on the outside of the forest. Getting accommodation at Dhikala is truly an insider's job and in hindsight I recommend you take the services of either of the following folks to take the load off your head:

Dhikala is a great place for spotting wild elephants, hog deer, barking deer and a wide variety of birds in a really dense, forest. Tiger sightings are a matter of chance and more so here, given the dense cover they have. We almost missed the only sighting we had here and the tigress we stopped for was so offended by the fact that we'd blocked her route, that she lunged at us in a mock charge emitting a huge roar. Before we knew it, she'd lunged across the road and neither of the five cameras trained on her had an opportunity to get a photograph. A great sighting - one that left our hearts racing. In our one day at Dhikala, we ran into several elephant herds and saw several exotic birds. Before we'd even sampled the zone properly, we had to head out of the zone and check into our rest house at Bijrani.

The Bijrani rest house is quite old in itself. Established in 1928 as a hunting lodge for the British, it serves as an in forest accommodation for tourists. The zone however, is shared across both day visitors and lodge residents. This tends to make the zone quite noisy, despite the fact that your accommodation can get you several minutes of tranquility when at the rest house. Do remember that you can get out early each morning and stay back late each evening when all other vehicles are likely to be racing against time to reach the gate. Bijrani is also a comparatively drier zone which makes game spotting somewhat easier.

Now did we see a tiger at Bijrani? You bet we did - a young female who chose to sleep in a little cave in almost human fashion. It seemed to make no difference to her as the guides and visitors on the hillock above her made a huge ruckus about her presence. We left her fast asleep, only to come back in the afternoon to watch her lounging in her private pool after the long siesta.

I must put in a word for the elephant safaris at Corbett. In my view there's no better way to experience the forest. Remember that it's not the best perch for photography or to get the best sightings, given the elephant's always moving and that it's a lot slower than a safari vehicle. However, the ability to see the forest from the inside, on an all terrain animal is quite something. No gorge is too deep, no slope too steep. If you had to follow a tiger into the bush, the elephant's your best bet. It's also a great way to experience first hand how man and animal can be such good friends. The trust and understanding between the elephants and their mahouts (handlers) is something to see so you can believe. The mahouts also have really interesting tales to tell so even if you don't get great wildlife sightings, you can have a really entertaining ride through the thickets.

Anyways, Corbett was the last stop on the big cat trail this year. It's been quite amazing - we've spotted 49 big cats; 28 lions, 20 tigers, and 1 leopard. I think it's quite humbling to be stuck one short of a half century; nature's way of showing she's still in control. I am returning to Bangalore enriched by this experience. I've learned so much and I am more appreciative of this country's biodiversity than I was ever before. The big cat trail will be on the road again in the summer of next year and my plan is to visit the following parks:
  • Tadoba
  • Pench
  • Ranthambore
  • Corbett
  • Dudhwa
  • Sunderban
  • Kaziranga
While it's quite impossible to upload all my photographs from the big cat trail, I've put together a small selection of photographs here. As always, my work is under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 4 - Bandavgarh National Park

It's not often that you see 10 tigers and still retain a sense of disappointment. Happy as we are at the end of our Bandavgarh safaris, we see a huge scope for improvement with the tourism policies at this reserve. More on that in a bit. If you were ever in two minds about which Indian tiger reserve is likely to afford the best guarantee for tiger sightings, then it's got to be Bandavgarh. Why? Take a few factors into perspective. The Tala tourism zone is just about 102 sq km and has about 22 tigers in it. That gives you a tiger density of about one in every five sq kilometres. This apart, you can seek the assistance of the tracking elephants which when they find a tiger, will mark the spot where the tiger's resting and then take turns to transport you so you can view the tiger in it's natural habitat. Don't listen to what armchair conservationists may say in criticism of the tracking elephants. These animals do not interfere with the big cat's natural movement and make far less noise than safari vehicles. When observing secretive animals, using any intelligence and assistance is never a bad thing. Add to that the presence of some really bold tigers like Kankatti, B2 and the new and upcoming Bamera male, you have a heady mix for tiger sightings.

This being said, the park management needs to get it's act straight with it's tourism policies. Wildlife observation is a matter of luck and patience. Depending on the kind of wildlife you wish to observe, you'll need to invest time and energy to get the sightings you want. The park management has made this very difficult. They've divided the zone into four tracks - A,B,C and D. These tracks combine to make four 60 km routes (AC, CA, BD, DB) that safari vehicles have to complete whether they like it or not. When on safari, the prescriptive routes make it really difficult to stop even for a 5-10 minutes near an animal you wish to observe. I hate the Bandavgarh route system with a passion, if you haven't noticed already. The park management seems to be hearing the visitors though and there's talk of potential changes next year. The management plans to halve the number of vehicles allowed in the zone and double the safari prices. This'll ensure that we can reduce the disturbance for the animals and also keep the park revenues intact.

Now that's a lot of background information, so I'll keep the rest of the experience report short. We stayed at the White Tiger Forest Lodge of the MPTDC which in my view is just unbeatable, comfortable accommodation right by the edge of the forest. The air-conditioned and the air cooled rooms are equally comfortable and with all three meals included, the deal's a steal. In addition, you have some really hospitable staff who will do all it takes to make you happy. If you book the safaris from the lodge, then be sure to ask for Yadav as your driver. The gentleman has been at Bandavgarh for two decades and knows the park like the back of his hand. Most importantly, he's developed a great intuition for all of the park's tigers and can often guess with great accuracy the routes they're likely to take. You will of course need a good guide, but since that's really out of your control given the park's rotation system, you're well served if you have a knowledgeable driver.

We didn't have Yadav as our driver for the first drive, but we more than made up for it in the next two drives which had us bumping into 8 tigers in a day - my best tally ever. In the following drives we saw a tiger each, bringing our tally to 10 tigers in Bandavgarh. We didn't get the best photographs at the park given that we didn't have the opportunity to wait at most of the spots for long and if we'd found tigers resting we had to leave them before they got into a good photo position. I'm not complaining though - every moment you spend with this regal animal is an absolute privilege and something to cherish regardless of whether you get a photo or not.

I need to also put in a word for the Bandavgarh Interpretation Centre which is just near the Tala gate. It's a great showcase for this small, yet incredible park and has a great photo gallery on it's first floor. Bandavgarh is famous for tiger sightings but the interpretation centre is a good place to visit just to learn about the incredible biodiversity of the park and the things you should keep an eye out for. All in all, Bandavgarh gets high marks in my book (photos here) and the only reason it doesn't get a perfect 10 is because of the accursed route system. Hopefully that changes soon.

If you're visiting Bandavgarh, try seeking the help of MP Tourism to arrange your transfers, stay and safaris. The fact that we paid just about INR 7500 each for this awesome experience tells you how inexpensive they can make things for you.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 3 - Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

Ranthambore is my favourite park.", Gaurav reminded me as I spoke to him on the phone. Gaurav Athelye's a friend and runs Jungle Lore - a wildlife tourism outfit. He'd suggested to me that I should definitely visit Ranthambore and promised to help us organise the visit. Our big cat trail landed at the town of Jaipur on 4 May. A harrowingly long drive got us to the town of Sawai Madhopur, where we'd camp for the next two days for four drives into the forest.

Our hotel, the Hammir wasn't exactly in the lap of luxury. The fact that the AC wasn't working in the extreme heat when we arrived wasn't very comforting. That said, the hotel manager is quite willing to help guests out and help he did. I'd definitely recommend the hotel if you're backpacking and are looking for budget accommodation. I'm inclined to try the RTDC hotels or the Ranthambore Bagh the next time I go there, but I wouldn't recommend against the Hammir.

Our first drive was in the absolutely picture postcard - Zone 3. Mind you, Ranthambore is a huge forest (1400+ sq km), but the tiger reserve itself is only 392 sq km. To ensure minimal disruption to wildlife, the reserve is divided into 6 zones and the officials are quite strict to ensure that vehicles don't cross over. Zone 3 is truly a wildlifer's dream - we didn't see a tiger (clearly), but the quality of wildlife and bird sightings were to write home about. The zone's centerpiece, the Rajbaug lake attracts birds and animals alike. You could sit by it's edge for hours and never tire of the sight. Our drive ended with a sighting of T-28 (a.k.a the 'Star Male') in deep sleep at the hunting palace in the distance. Disappointing drive for tiger sightings, but full marks for everything else.

Our next drive was in Zone 2. Yet again pretty good bird sightings, but nothing out of the ordinary with mammals. Well, let me be fair. For a long time we kept listening to chitals, peacocks and sambars screaming their lungs off with warning calls. After an hour of investigation, we decided to probe further at a bush which we suspected was hosting a tiger. Our driver reversed the jeep into position. Saad, our naturalist cried out "Tiger!". Excited as we were, we squinted but couldn't see a thing. After much pointing and gesturing, we saw the stripes of a tiger as testimony. No, we weren't hallucinating. I have a photograph to prove it. Our second drive had gone by without seeing a tiger. Damn!

Our third and penultimate drive on 6th May morning was unusually dry. We had to go to Zone 1, a picturesque, hilly part of the park. Unfortunately for us, the forest chose to show us nothing that morning. For the most part, it was a long drive through the forest, with neither mammal nor bird sightings. I have so little to say about the morning, that Zone 1 remains my least favourite part of not just Ranthambore, but perhaps the entire trail. For some reason, Saad was very stressed that we hadn't seen a tiger. We didn't mind all that much, but it was going to be disappointing to leave without seeing the big cat in action.

Come afternoon, we decided that if we were really desperate to see a tiger, then that called for desperate measures. In India, when on important 'failure is not an option' kind of missions, we often wear a bandana on our heads. I got myself just that from a nearby handicrafts store. We couldn't let India's most famous tiger reserve let us go without some tiger photos. Our drive had an auspicious beginning- we were heading into zone 4, home to Machili, the world's most famous tigress.

Our drive however, was quite eventful until we reached the top of a hillocks that seemed to have way too much human activity. "There's got to be a tiger about.", said Saad. As we made our way to where everyone was looking, we saw a celebrity retinue of vehicles make their way to a better viewing spot. It was Priyanka Vadhra, daughter of one of our ex-prime ministers. That if course was secondary to the fact that we had spotted not one, but two tigers - together possibly to mate. On a second thought, it wasn't. You see, India has no dearth of very important people (VIPs) and people will go to all lengths to please them. So as it turns out, Priyanka and her family got the best viewing positions. Not that we has bad positions, but I wouldn't have complained about being in her jeep that day. As far as the tigers go, they were pretty relaxed even with so many human beings around them. They lazed around for a while, snuggled with one another for a few moments, took a few quick drinks of water and then were promptly on their way to enjoy each other's company in seclusion.

As we returned back to our hotel in readiness to hit the road, we talked about how awesome this sighting was. We'd heard no end of the quality of Ranthambore sightings and this one surely lived up to the mark. I personally thought that I'd just gotten a sampler of this wonderful, enigmatic forest - I've got to come back here next year to truly enjoy the forest for an extended duration of time.

If you wish to visit Ranthambore, remember that it's one of the most tourist friendly parks of the country. Finding accommodation is quite easy as is booking safaris. The only catch is that you're likely to get a different driver and a guide each drive unless you do something about it. Especially when you're new to a forest, you're better off having the same naturalist guiding you through all your drives. The way to do this is to ask your hotel or to contact a wildlife tourism outfit such as Jungle Lore. That apart, just enjoy the Ranthambore forest (photos here) and the several surprises it keeps throwing at you. As far as we are concerned, we're now heading to Delhi so we can get our connection to Bandavgarh, our next stop on the big cat trail.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 2 - Gir Forest National Park

If you've never seen lions in the wild, it's quite something to be less than six feet away from one. If you have seen lions in the wild, then to see them crouch, stalk and get into the hunt is like watching poetry in motion. The big cat trail made it's second stop at Gir. Sowmya, Pratima, Pradeep and Santosh had headed back to Bangalore. That left Sahana and me to make the long journey to Junagadh, so we could connect to the last home of the Asiatic Lions (Panthera Leo Persica). Our journey took longer than expected and the comfortable, air-conditioned drive from Junagadh to the Club Mahindra resort was just the thing that we needed to soothe our muscles.

The next morning we were on safari. Gir has a clearly demarcated tourism zone that has 8 separate routes. This is a small section of the 1412 sq km forest, and that affords the animals a really large inviolate area. Unabashedly so, we had our eyes set on lion sightings. I asked our guide Bali about lion sightings and he said, "I'll show you so many lions that by the end of your nine drives, you'll be tired of them!" I can't say I'm tired of lions, but having seen 28 of them, I can safely say my eyes have had their fill for this time.

There are a few things you should know about Gir. First, lion spottings are aplenty on route 6 and route 2. This is because these are tracker assisted routes. From what I hear, Sandeep Kumar - the deputy conservator of forests at Gir is a pro-tourism administrator. Not only has he been instrumental in doubling the daily permit quotas to enter the forest, he's also made a significant change to assure visitors of lion sightings.

Lions are social animals. Having brushed shoulders with the local Maldhari and Negro tribesmen, they've also become used to human presence. The local people are heavily involved in the conservation of this magnificent animal, which explains the evident disappearance of poaching and the continually rising population of big cats (411 in the last census). This being said, it's never easy to spot them, because lions like most cats, can relax in the shade for unto 16 hours a day. They go on the hunt or to patrol their territories mostly in the darkness of night. This means that your chances of spotting a lion by following pug marks or by driving down a route are quite slim. This is where the trackers come into play.

Gir's trackers are men from the local tribes who've grown up in the forest. They don't just know the forest like the back of their hands, they know the habits and haunts of the lions. With Gir being the last home for Asiatic lions, conservation efforts need to be more than just the usual stuff. The trackers do a 14 hour job in the forest, traveling on foot, motorbikes or bicycles to personally monitor the health of various lions in the forest. If a lion looks ill or needs medical attention, they'll inform a crew so they can get to the spot and help the beast. It's no wonder that Gir's male lions enjoy a long life despite their violent lives.

Coming back to route 6 and route 2, Sandeep Kumar has instructed the trackers to assist safari jeeps with sightings whenever possible, especially if the sighting doesn't interfere with the natural behaviour of the animal. Let me put this into some perspectives. We did four of our safaris on non tracker assisted routes and we ended up seeing two lions. On the remaining five safaris we saw 26 lions. I personally think this is a wonderful move from the forest department as long as visitors don't make a circus out of it.

The lions apart, Gir is home to over 300 leopards and the numerous warning calls we heard for this elusive beast is testimony to their invisible presence. We could only spot one though - perhaps that's a reason for us to return. Combine that with the several species of birds and the great sightings of Asian paradise flycatchers and several birds of prey, and Gir becomes truly a wildlifer's heaven.

If you want to visit Gir, consider staying at the Club Mahindra Safari Resort. It's not exactly close to the forest, but I must say their service has bowled me over. If you prefer staying closer to the forest, consider the Gir Birding Lodge or the government's Sinh Sadan guest house. The latter is quite difficult to get bookings for. You need to get through several phone calls to secure your spot. Safari bookings are usually through your hotel and it's useful to have hotel staff that understand your interests. Make sure you are vocal about what you want to see, so they can get you on the right routes. And by the way, don't be shy to walk around the buffer zone of the forest. You might just be surprised with some of the birds, animals and people you bump into!
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