Within 10 minutes of our driving through the gates of Gujarat’s Gir National Park, the sneaky leopard had stolen the lion’s thunder! Our driver spotted him and turned the Gypsy so that its lights lit up the animal at the water trough a little distance off the road. It crouched there, glimmering like a mound of gold in the pre-dawn darkness. All you could see were its shoulders and haunches — its head was in the trough and it didn’t take it out until it was done drinking. Then it vanished in that uncanny way of leopards. First strike to the leopard!
“They’re elusive and difficult to spot,” we were told. And that we should not really expect anything — the jungle has its own way of dispensing favours. Well, it did, and how. In the next four days — over a total of nine safaris — we saw lions on eight of them: First, three lionesses being looked over by his lordship. The Asiatic lion is a burly fellow with a rather scraggly beard, unlike its African cousin, who sports a massive bouffant. Lest you think less of him because of this, he wears an acutely supercilious expression on his face, his stone-coloured eyes half closed with disdain. The lionesses look more benign, though they too can give you a look that’ll make you mind your manners.
Most of the time, the lions we met were doing what lions do best: lazing and lolling, flicking their shaving-brush tipped tails from time to time to keep the flies away. But then came news of an amorous couple and off we went, and, sure enough, met the happy pair just off the road. They were resting at first and then his lordship decided to make out right in front of us (It would be a treat to see the moral brigade try to interfere with their dalliance now). On another pre-dawn morning, we watched another huge male mark his territory, sniff a bush and pull a face as though he’d smelt something nasty (it’s called flehmen — and he could have been detecting the alluring perfume of a lioness), before he strode away into the darkness to continue his territorial patrol. We met the happy couple yet again, posing rather formally this time.
After the recent debacle of lion deaths all the lions we saw were under strict monitoring and surveillance. In fact, the easiest way to know that there were lions around was to look out for the trackers and forest officials’ motorbikes and white Boleros parked near them, in the bushes. Like the lions, the trackers would be lolling around, too, not far from the tawny beasts. One official was pumping his Bolero’s tire with a bicycle pump while a lion looked on with mild interest. You are supposed to keep quiet in the jungle, but the trackers had no such compunctions as they yelled at each other at the top of their voices. In a sense, it did take the thrill away, and you began to think uncharitable thoughts. It’s likely that they’ve got so accustomed to the trackers that they ignore them. But yes, they did provide all the thrills you wanted when they roared — deeply and gutturally. And, when they yawned and slowly closed their jaws, you could see the deadly scissoring action of the upper and lower canines as they came together!
There were other creatures to look out for, too. Our driver spotted another leopard, sitting beside a black rock in a depression. It had its eyes hypnotically fixed on something, and, after a bit, began sneaking towards it. There were chitals, their antlers gilded by the sunlight, sambars and a single wild boar that trundled away snorting.
As for birds, Gir is known for its raptors but we didn’t spot very many: a crested hawk eagle, white-eyed buzzards (several) and the shikra were about all we could manage. A family of very affectionate spotted owlets, however, somewhat made up for it as they preened and kissed one another, their eyes half-closed in bliss. Another surprise was that the huge Kamleshwar reservoir was absolutely devoid of winter waterfowl — but then I read that, some time ago, nearly 1,000 crocodiles (muggers) had been released here. No duck that has flown all the way from Siberia would want to be taken down by one of those! We saw the crocs floating like innocent logs in the water, beady eyes and snouts breaking the surface.
The Gypsy safaris are well organised and your driver and guide are particular about exiting at the stipulated time (they face a month’s suspension if late). Both complain about the lack of interest shown by visitors — and judging by the bored faces we saw, it seems to be so.
Though the forests around Gir are huge, the national park itself covers only 258 sq km, plus another 1,412 sq km for the sanctuary. Here live all the world’s remaining 532 Asiatic lions. While they are being carefully watched over, it would still be prudent to find some of them at least another kingdom, far away. We all know the equation between a pride and a fall.
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