Bhushan Pandya has been shooting and documenting the Gir National Park and Sanctuary, the last abode of Asiatic lions in the world, in Saurashtra region of Gujarat for the last three decades. In 1996, a photograph he shot of a a lioness in the backdrop of the sea provided evidence that Asiatic lions had also made the coastline of Sutrapada their home. Now 60, and nearly crippled by a road accident, the photographer still returns to his beloved forest. Excerpts from an interview:
When did you start visiting Gir forest? How did you become interested in wildlife photography?
My father died when I was 10 months old and I was brought up at my maternal grandparents’ home in Rajkot. My grandfather was a photographer. So, cameras were my toys. They started taking me to Gir for picnics when I was a schoolboy.
In 1995, the Gujarat forest department began work on a new management plan for Gir forest. I was chosen as the professional photographer who would document the activities of the department, like rescuing wild animals, classifying habitat types etc. I drove and trekked across the length and breadth of the forest for three-and-a-half years while on the job. Simultaneously, I started shooting its flora and fauna. This project helped me understand what a wonder Gir forest is. Initially, I used to shoot lions. But I realised that it was also a great bird reserve, where more than 300 avian species are found. I also clicked a lioness on the coast in Sutrapada (which is outside the Gir forest), with the sea in the background. No one had believed till then that lions could live in coastal areas; so this was a rare shot. After this project, it dawned on me that there is a lot to be documented in Gir.
How have you seen lions and its habitat change over the years?
The lion population has more than doubled since the time I started visiting Gir. Till 1987, the forest department used to hold lion shows in the tourism zone of the sanctuary by baiting them with buffalo calves. Also, maldharis (cattle-herders) then lived inside the forest and the big cats would prey on cattle, which formed 70 per cent of their diet. At the time, therefore, lion prides were bigger. But now, many maldharis have moved out and wild ungulates form 70 per cent of their kills. Spotted deer is now their main prey. But this herbivore is smaller in size and not enough for a big lion family. Therefore, the number of lions in a pride has reduced. There was once a pride with seven male lions in Janvadla. I had spotted a pride with three male lions. But nowadays, we hardly find two adult lions in a pride. This is partly due to the fact that even a lone lioness can hunt down a spotted deer and would not require the help of other family members.
Their habitat has also changed substantially. There were more open areas once, now vegetation has increased. But unwanted species such as Cassia tora and Lantena camera have also grown. Lions now live not just in 1,412 sq km of the sanctuary. They roam in the vast expanse of 22,000 sq km in Saurashtra, in revenue areas and waste lands.
Tell us about a few series of photographs you clicked in Gir.
Though the lion is a great predator, its encounters with crocodiles are rare. But in 1993-94, Rohit Vyas (fellow wildlife photographer) and I spotted a pride of seven lions with a kill of a buffalo on the bank of river Hiran in the Valodara area of Gir forest. We also saw a young crocodile lying dead in the mud near the kill. A forest officer, who had passed by the spot before us, told us that he had not seen the crocodile. Which means the encounter had taken place minutes before we reached there. After the pride went away, we inspected the carcass: it seemed as if the crocodile had been killed in one bite and thrust in the mud by a lioness. After sometime, the lioness returned, took the dead crocodile in her jaws and dragged it across the river to a hillock, where we believed her cubs were.
But my photo of 11 cubs and two lionesses in one frame really tested my patience. I was told there was a pride of 15 near the Devaliya interpretation zone. I pursued that pride of 11 cubs and four lionesses for four months. I shot the pride hundreds of times but never managed to capture them in one frame. But one evening, as we were about to return home, one of the two lionesses rose and started walking towards the nearby waterhole. I sensed that the cubs might follow her. Usually, cubs go running to waterholes in small groups, drink water and run away. But that day, all of them came together.
What draws you to Gir even now?
Initially, it was the lion. It is such a majestic species that one just can’t have enough of it. But once I started thinking about why lions live here, I looked at the forest in its entirety and understood its richness. Now, I don’t complain even if I don’t sight a lion on nine days of a 10-day trip. I feel happy just to be there and breathe in the atmosphere. Despite the 2013 accident having affected my movement, I could not keep myself from visiting Gir in December last year and go there once in a while. It’s like going on a pilgrimage to nature.