Shafiq raised his hand and beside him the driver slammed the brake pedal. Shafiq was my guide for the early morning safari in Gir forest in the Kathiawar peninsular of Gujarat. We were some half an hour into the jeep trail inside the jungle. He got off the jeep and followed the dirt trail like a sniffer.
“Look, pug marks,” he said. I leaned out from my seat to see. “Lioness, sir. With cubs, one, two… at least two cubs. Gone that way,” he pointed at 11 o’clock from us. The sun rose and put on flame the treetops and the hills of the arid deciduous teak forest, while the valleys and the gorges were still dull. Like two separate pictures joined horizontally. Crusts of dried teak leaves like pale cotton-candy covered the ground.
This jungle remains the only home of the Asiatic lion — the animal glorified by Greeks, Romans and Persians over millennia in their sculptures and folklore. Sometimes as griffin, with wings. Sometimes as Nemeus Lion in Greek mythology. Once lording over the vast landmass of Eurasia, from the Adriatic in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, this magnificent creature, always a symbol of nobility and strength, has been wiped off the face of the earth by mindless human greed. And in that crispy morning in the jungle of Gir, I needed favour of all the Greek and Roman gods to sight some of the only 360-odd left in the world.
Call of the wild
“I shall try my best to sight a lion sir,” Shafiq said, “but this is 730 square miles of jungle. No one can guarantee a sighting.” Then as an afterthought, added, “But sir, you will see plenty of spotted deer, blue bull, sambar, wild boar, four-horned antelope, which is found only in Gir, and may be flying fox and even a python. I saw a 15-feet-long python three days ago.”
“So, the lion is the most elusive one here?” I asked.
“No sir, it’s the leopard. Leopard sighting happens only once in some 15 safaris.” We drove deeper inside the forest. A flock of spotted deer looked up from grazing and then swung around and scampered off. Three peacocks were busy pecking their breakfast from the ground and did not bother to look up from their chore. Shafiq pointed deep inside the jungle. “See there, dark.”
I strained to see between hundreds of tree trunks. Beyond a distance everything looked dark. But far away, something seemed darker. “Looks like a thick girth of a tree,” I said.
Then all of a sudden that thick dark girth started moving… leisurely towards us, on four feet, veering now and then. It was now like an enlarged horse, more meaty and rounded. At one point the rays of the sun pierced through the canopy of the jungle and fell on its back, like a spotlight. An electric blue tinge sparkled from its skin.“The blue bull sir, locally called Nilgai,” said Shafiq.
“How did you spot the animal from so far away?” I asked.
Shafiq gave a tooth-full smile traversing from ear to ear. We moved on. Now and then he pointed at some bird, monkeys, a sambar.“That’s a crested hawk eagle.” “That’s the pygmy woodpecker.”“Crested swift, there.”
At one place the jeep-trail narrowed. We stopped to give right of way to three wild boars that hurtled down the slope from our left and disappeared beyond the ledge to the right.
An hour-and-a-half in the jungle and no sign of lion as yet beyond those pug marks. Our trail came out of the forest and into a savannah. Shafiq pointed at a cluster of huts huddled tightly.
“Huts of Maldharis, the jungle people,” he said.
“Are they traditional hunters?” I asked.
“No, Sir. They are strict vegetarians. They rear cattle and trade in milk and butter. “Aren’t their cattle hunted down by the lions?”
“Yes, they are. But that’s the law of the jungle.”
Our trail bended back into the jungle. Shafiq raised his hand and stopped the jeep.“What do we…” I was about to ask. “Shhh,” Shafiq silenced me, finger on his lips. He stepped out of the jeep and stalked slowly, like a cat, scanning the branches of the trees around. From the jeep, I followed his gaze. He was staring hard at the branches of a banyan tree. Moments passed in silence. Only the occasional rustle of the wind and the tweeting and chooing and kweeking of the birds kept the symphony on. For how long?
Eventually, Shafiq returned to the jeep, shaking his head in dejection. I wasn’t sure if I should still remain silent. Shafiq said, “A leopard around, somewhere. But I cannot spot.”
“Yes, I heard the deer call and the monkeys shriek. All other signs are there.”“But you were looking up.”
“The banyan tree is the leopard’s favourite perch.”
I scarily looked up the branches right above my head. Shafiq laughed.
“Sir, you will ride right below the nose of a leopard and will never get to know it’s up there.”
Fruits of patience
A chill crept through my spine. But Shafiq was enjoying my predicament. These guides are people from the surrounding villages who have grown up with the hills and the jungle and the animals. They have sharp eyes and ears and instincts that match that of the predator and the prey they co-inhabit with. Their natural skills are further honed by formal training as approved guides for the safaris. Shafiq apprehended my disappointment with the elusive lions and the leopard. “Two things the city-folks lack, Sir,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
I nodded smilingly, little knowing that I would soon get a crash course on it. “What’s the other?” I asked.
“Gracefully accepting what is offered by nature.”
This time I did not smile. Only reflected. The calisthenics of philosophy that we may delve in while easing in our armchair, these simple people walk them through every day without pretence. The jungle is a great teacher.
At a bend of the trail our jeep stopped. Shafiq signalled me to keep quiet while, from his seat, he scanned the jungle to the right that sloped down. I followed his gaze but saw nothing beyond tan and light brown trunks of trees which got darker by the distance. Shafiq stretched up from his seat, his neck and shoulders taut, like a cat on a mission. He stared at a distance to our right with singular attention. Minutes passed. Be patient, be patient — I kept muttering the jungle mantra. After what seemed to be eternity, Shafiq whispered, “Keep your camera ready, Sir. We may be in luck.” He turned back towards the jungle again. Time kept trudging in its own leisurely pace in the jungle. Then suddenly Shafiq pointed with his fingers.
I did not see anything. Then something seemed to be moving. Oh, yes! Almost blended with the colour of dried teak leaves, a lioness was lumbering up the slope. Tagging with her were one… two… no, three cubs. I was about to click but Shafiq stopped me. There was another lioness hulking behind, and another.
The pride walked up some 30 feet from our jeep and squatted. The cubs jumped around, rolled over and played cuddly. Shafiq cleared me to click on my camera, but without the flash. Standing up from my seat I marvelled at the family saga of lions. A little one rolled belly up and the mother tickled with her mouth. The cub was ecstatic. I giggled. I became one of their family too.