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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You're lucky to have gotten a clear view of a leopard. From what I heard, even on the best holidays to zanzibar, spotting one can be ridiculously difficult.

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