Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Gir experience.

Gir National Park, billed as the “Last Sanctuary of Asiatic Lion” was a must visit for our group of eight who had gone on a Customs attachment to Kandla-Mundra. We were not just attracted by the advertising blitzkrieg of the Gir forest which by the way was omnipresent on most websites related to Gujarat but also we were drawn towards the idea of seeing a majestic lion in all its glory in a natural setting and that too at a stone’s throw distance. We were also enthused by the stories of how the lions had got used to people around the forest and the fact that they had sort of say opted to ‘harmoniously’ live with humans. They were known to be least afraid of human presence and were known walk at a touching distance from humans without fear. Before I get down to our experience at Gir, let me introduce you to Gir National Park. Set up in 1965 with a total area of 1412 km2 located in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat and to the south east of Junagadh, it houses about 350 lions along with 2,375 distinct fauna species and also has several families of Madhesi tribals living inside the park. It is the last area where Asiatic lions not only survive but also thrive, thanks to the climate and is also home to one of the largest Leopard populations in any park in India.
We reached on 26th of Dec ’09 at Gir and to utter disappointment found the place overflowing with tourists all around as it was that time of the year (Christmas to New Year) when everyone was out travelling and we never got the pass to enter the safari zone. We had to be content visiting the Gir Interpretation zone at Devaliya spread over around 10Km2 and a few ‘semi-domesticated’ lions left in it. It was a scene perfect for an example for over-tourism as buses after buses loaded full of tourists flooded the small area where two lionesses were resting and they seemed to have been subjected to sensory overload as they lay in motionless and had become insensitive to the crowd peering over it. We felt sorry for the lionesses and guilty at the same time for being a part of the huge crowd which was tipping to see them.
We were quite unsatisfied with our first Gir visit for the simple reason that the lionesses we saw had been cornered in the interpretation zone and hardly had the majestic nature that we had imagined. So we resolved to visit the place some other day. The opportunity soon came across to us when we had to visit the shore guard unit of Porbander. Having had to stay put at a place close to Gir forest we lapped up the opportunity to visit it once again. This time we reached early in the morning and were lucky to get an entry pass for the safari. Armed with multiple cameras and with great anticipation and hope we moved into the forest in a hired open jeep. We were all eyes and watching expectantly to see the lion walk in from along the bushes. And as with any other safari the guide was gleefully showing us ‘fresh’ pug marks and scats all along which didn’t amuse us after a point and sounded like a cruel mockery of us when were expecting to see a live lion. After more than an hour and just when we had started to give up all hope of spotting a lion in natural setting, we spotted a ‘tracker’. Trackers are people sent out by the forest department for following lions into deep forest and they are sort of ‘co-opted’ by the lions into their family over a period of time in the sense they let these trackers as close as a few feet away without causing any harm to them. The tracker to our delighted pointed to us a direction where we saw two majestic lions in deep slumber. He informed us that they were brothers and after a nice heavy meal on the day before were resting which happens to be their regular routine (Lucky them!). As we watched them intently and clicked snaps one of them got up, warmed up a bit by doing a set of fascinating stretching exercises and then moved on. The other brother not to be left out also got up, did the same routine of stretching as if they had a mutual pre-agreement to follow the same steps and moved towards the nearby pool for a drink and stopped in between its lazy walk to make sure it ‘marked’ its territory. As they walked on the road towards the pool, our group of eight were left speechless not because we were lucky to sight a lion and our trip mission was thus fulfilled but because that we could help but admire the majestic-ness of the lions which we had always read of in books and had dismissed them as clichéd references to glorify the king of the jungle. But the feeling that we had when we saw those two lions walk by on the road was beyond words and surpassing expressible words. It was like in the matrix movie that we were suddenly unplugged from the concrete world where time flies by and connected to a place where time just stood still and the lions were just teasing us with their carefree, happy attitude and an exerting that we were in the their territory! As they crossed across the road and moved out of view all of us muted by the spectacle broke into a self congratulatory mode and the smile of everyone’s face made it quite evident that everyone was moved beyond satisfaction at the sight they had just witnessed. On our way back luck smiled on us further by let us have a peek at a couple of owlets, peacocks, Blackbucks and lots of Deers.

The visit to Gir was a memorable experience that we will cherish as well as relish for the rest of our lives. It has not only offered us to view the grandiose of lions during the safari but also showed us the ugly side of eco-tourism in our earlier visit when we saw the lions swamped by visitors. We left with the thought that the lions were safe in Gir but the need to ensure sustainable eco tourism without overburdening the animals is something that we need to give a serious thought to. 

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