Saturday, May 31, 2008

King of the Gir


A forest-dwelling animal, the Asiatic lion is comfortable in the the Gir which is a combination of dry decidious and shrub forest interspersed with patches of grassland and riverine forest.

The Gir Forest in Saurashtra, Gujarat is the only remaining large tract of natural forest in the region. Most of this forest was initially established as a wildlife sanctuary primarily to provide a safe home for the Asiatic lions. Subsequently the central part of the Sanctuary was declared as a National Park to upgrade the protection afforded to the habitat of this endangered wild cat. This population is the last remaining free ranging and wild population of lions in Asia. For a species that was once very widespread in its distribution from Syria eastwards through most parts of northern and central India and possibly numbered in thousands this has been quite a dramatic decline in distribution as well as numbers. The current population is estimated to be about 370 which in itself is remarkable as the population had hit a low of about 20 animals in the late 1880s.

The Asiatic lion is a forest dwelling animal. The Gir forest is a combination of dry deciduous and scrub forest interspersed with patches of grassland and riverine forest. The terrain is undulating with a few expansive plains. These forests on an average receive between 650 and 1000 mm of rainfall and droughts are quite common.

Invaluable collection

Gir is a delight to the wildlife tourist as well as a wildlife researcher as it holds a wonderful variety of plant and animal life. Both lions and leopards are regularly sighted. Chital, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, wild pig, chousingha, two species of mongoose, small Indian civet, common langur are species of mammals that can be sighted easily. The forest has a rich bird life especially raptors. The reservoirs and rivers hold large populations of mugger crocodile.

I have had the good fortune to sight five leopards together. This group was a mother with her four fully grown cubs. This in many ways indicates both the health and productivity of the forest and also the good protection that is given to the wildlife here.

There is a fairly large human population living in and around the Sanctuary. The Maldharis who live in the forest are pastoral who graze herds of buffaloes in the forest. They live in thorn enclosed settlements called ness. Thousands of tourists visit Gir every year. They all want to see lions and in their anxiety to sight the wild cat they often fail to notice and enjoy the landscape and other species of wildlife.

While seeing a wild lion is always a thrilling experience it is good to also develop an interest in other wildlife. Junagadh and Veraval are the closest towns to the headquarters of the protected area in Sasan village. Since there can be no guarantee for sighting wildlife it is important to invest sufficient time to sight the wildlife of Gir and to savour the experience. I can assure you that seldom will a visit to Gir be disappointing.


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