To most people, lions are symbolic of Africa. However, in one forest on another continent, the Asian lion has made its last stand. Once upon a time, lions roamed in large numbers across a vast swath of Europe and Asia. But hunting and habitat destruction have greatly reduced their numbers. Gir Forest National Park in the state of Gujarat, India, is the last stronghold of the Asian lion. There are only about 200 left in the wild. On a trip to India in January, I decided to visit Gir to see these elusive Asian lions and the deer, wild boars, monkeys, and peacocks that inhabit the forest.
I traveled by car from Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat, and stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of the forest. The evening was spent talking to the inhabitants of the local village and making arrangements for a safari the following day.
Very early in the morning, when the animals are active, I entered the forest in an open Jeep with a driver and a forest guide. It was still dark with a gentle cool breeze. Scent travels far under such conditions, ideal for lions to locate their prey. There was no sound except that of the Jeep engine and the indescribable background noise of the jungle. Every rustle would set our hearts racing.
Gradually, the inky darkness yielded to a glorious dawn. Shafts of golden sunlight filtered through the jungle canopy and lit up patches of the forest floor covered with dry brown leaves. Our ears and eyes strained to catch sound or sight of the lions. After some driving on jungle tracks, we heard muffled roars in the distance. We stopped and listened, senses stretched to the breaking point, trying to gauge the direction and distance of the roars.
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