English language news articles from year 2007 plus find out everything about Asiatic Lion and Gir Forest. Latest News, Useful Articles, Links, Photos, Video Clips and Gujarati News of Gir Wildlife Sanctuary (Geer / Gir Forest - Home of Critically Endangered Species Asiatic Lion; Gir Lion; Panthera Leo Persica ; Indian Lion (Local Name 'SAVAJ' / 'SINH' / 'VANRAJ') located in South-Western Gujarat, State of INDIA), Big Cats, Wildlife, Conservation and Environment.
lions in the Gir forest, and Ms Rasila Vadher, head of the Gujarat
Forest Department's rescue team and her team members with a cage they
use to enter wells to help free trapped animals.PHOTOS: ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF LONDON, MARTIN FLETCH
Efforts to protect the once critically endangered Asiatic lions in Gujarat have helped the animals grow their population
One spring afternoon, I drive with a guide into the Gir National Park
and Wildlife Sanctuary - 1,410 sq km of beautiful and exquisitely
tranquil deciduous forest in a corner of Gujarat in India seven hours by
car from the teeming metropolis of Ahmedabad.
Sandy tracks lead us through a landscape of pale browns and yellows carpeted with the fallen, plate-sized leaves of teak trees.
We cross the dusty beds of dried-up rivers. We see strutting peacocks
and flocks of green parakeets, langur monkeys frolicking in the trees,
herds of spotted deer, great antlered sambar and the huge antelope that
Indians call nilgai grazing in the dappled sunlight.
Then we find the animals we have really come to see, though their beige fur camouflage them well.
There are seven in all, dozing by a water hole: two lionesses and
five cubs. The mothers acknowledge our arrival with a cursory lifting of
their heads before returning to their slumbers, but I am thrilled.
I have travelled more than 6,400km to see these creatures. The
Asiatic lions of Gir are the only wild lions left anywhere outside
Africa and their survival has been little short of miraculous.
Unlike in Africa, where too many villagers still see lions,
elephants, rhinos and other endangered species as competitors for scarce
resources, here, people revere and protect the lions in their midst.
REGIONAL PROGRAMME MANAGER FOR THE ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF LONDON
GITANJALI BHATTACHARYA on why the lion population in Gir is growing
A century ago, fewer than 20 were left in the world. Today, there are
more than 500. Their recovery contrasts starkly with the fate of
Africa's lions, which have been assailed so relentlessly by hunters,
poachers and human encroachment that scarcely 25,000 remain.
The credit for that recovery belongs not just to the sustained
efforts of the Gujarat Forest Department, but also to two long-
forgotten minor Indian princes and the astonishing attitude of local
Far from fearing the lions, they welcome and honour them - even when they kill their cattle or, on occasion, humans.
"This majestic creature has been rescued from the brink of
extinction. It's one of the greatest conservation success stories in the
world," my travelling companion, regional programme manager Gitanjali
Bhattacharya for the Zoological Society of London, declares after our
jeep safari ends.
The London Zoo last month opened Lands Of The Lions, a permanent
exhibition featuring several Asiatic lions in settings designed to
replicate those at Gir.
"Not only has the lion's future been secured, but we're now entering a
second phase where the lion is beginning to regain some of its old
territories. Unlike in Africa, where too many villagers still see lions,
elephants, rhinos and other endangered species as competitors for
scarce resources, here, people revere and protect the lions in their
Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than their African counterparts,
with more modest manes and a fold of loose skin along their stomachs.
Long ago, they were found right across the Middle East and northern
India, from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal. But during the 19th
and early 20th centuries, they gradually vanished. Maharajas and British
colonialists had shot almost all of India's too - all but a handful in
Gir which was the hunting estate of the Nawab of Junagarh, Saheb Sir
Muhammad Rasul Khanji II.
Junagadh is now a typically bustling Indian town of 160,000 people more than 60km from Gir.
Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary (www.girnationalpark.in/index.html)
is in south-western Gujarat. The headquarters are at Sasan Gir, which
is about 65km from Junagadh and about 350km from Ahmedabad.
Sasan Gir is a seven-hour drive from Ahmedabad. The nearest airports
are at Diu, which is about 110km away, or Rajkot, which is about 100km
beyond Junagadh. Trains from Junagadh to Sasan Gir take about 21/2
hours. Buses are also available from Ahmedabad and Junagadh.
Gir is open to tourists from Oct 16 to June 15 each year. Guided jeep
safaris last three hours and begin at 6 and 9am and 3pm each day. They
cost about $246 a jeep for foreigners, with each jeep taking a maximum
of six passengers.
Reservations can be made three months in advance. Because tourist
admissions are strictly limited, it is necessary to book as early as
There are several reasonably priced hotels in or near Sasan Gir. The Taj Gateway (gateway.tajhotels.com/en-in/gir-forest/) is one of the closest and best. Rates start from about $196 a night.
Ampersand Travel (tel: +44-0- 20-7819-9770 or go to ampersandtravel.com)
offers bespoke wildlife tours to Gujarat. A seven-night tour, including
accommodation at The Lodhi, Delhi; Taj Gateway, Ahmedabad; and Taj
Gateway, Sasan Gir, starts from US$4,110 (S$5,520) a person based on
twin-sharing, including international direct flights from Singapore ,
domestic flights, private airport transfers and privately guided safaris
in Gir National Park.
Singapore Airlines offers direct flights from Singapore to Ahmedabad
starting from $702 return. Air India offers daily flights from Singapore
to Ahmedabad via Delhi starting from $734.
I visit its museum one afternoon, hoping to learn more about the
nawab, but there was only a portrait of him resplendent in flowing robes
This much is known, however. In 1890, the Duke of Clarence visited
Junagadh and the nawab had trouble finding a lion for him to shoot.
According to one count, there were just 12 left. He duly declared Gir a
protected area, if only to ensure he still had some lions left to shoot.
In 1911, the nawab was succeeded by his son, Sir Muhammad Mahabat
Khanji III, who loved animals so much that he owned 300 hugely pampered
dogs. The museum has a portrait of him, sitting with a bejewelled dog at
The new nawab banned all shooting at Gir. He thus saved the lions,
but failed to save himself. Being Muslim, he enraged his Hindu subjects
by trying to lead Junagadh into the new state of Pakistan following
India's partition in 1947. He was forced to flee to Karachi. There, he
died - of rabies - in 1959.
By the time Gir was made an official sanctuary in 1965, it had about 170 lions and that number has continued to increase.
Today, there are more than 520. At least 150 of those now live
outside the sanctuary and range across 20,720 sq km of bush and
In 2005, they became the first carnivores to have their conservation
status downgraded from critically endangered to endangered by the
International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The Gujarat Forest Department has done its job well. In the 1970s, it
moved thousands of traditional cattle herders called Maldharis out of
Gir and resettled them elsewhere, triggering a sharp rise in the number
of boar, deer and other animals on which the lions prey.
It employs about 300 dedicated rangers, many of them women dubbed
"Queens of the Forest", who constantly track the lions armed only with
sticks called lathis.
"It's a beautiful animal," says Ms Rasila Vadher, who heads one of
three rescue teams that are on standby for calls from rangers or
villagers about sick or injured lions. The teams bring about 100 lions a
year to a state-of-the-art treatment centre at the park's headquarters,
most of them injured in fights with other lions.
At the centre, she shows me a steel cage in which she has
occasionally been lowered into wells to tranquillise and then extract
lions that have fallen in.
I can hear some of the rescued lions in their curtained cages, but I am not allowed to see them lest I add to their trauma.
The forest department has also established several smaller, satellite
sanctuaries. It has built walls around thousands of open wells so the
lions do not fall in. It has fenced off many kilometres of railway lines
after several lions were hit by trains and introduced a 20kmh speed
limit on a line - replete with hand-operated signals and points - that
passes though the sanctuary.
Funding is no object. As Gujarat's chief minister before becoming
India's Prime Minister in 2014, Mr Narendra Modi ensured that the forest
department had all the resources it needed.
That lavish funding means Gir can limit the number of tourists it admits each day. Inside the sanctuary, I see practically none.
But the lions also owe their resurgence to the people living in and around Gir.
They are vegetarian, so hunt neither the lions nor the animals they
eat. They are extremely devout and the lion occupies a special place in
the Hindu pantheon of living creatures as it is the animal on which the
goddess Durga rides. More prosaically, the lions scare away the nilgai,
boars and deer that eat the farmers' crops.
One day, I visit a "ness", one of the primitive settlements of the
few hundred Maldharis who still live inside the sanctuary and survive by
selling their cattle's milk and dung.
I meet Karim, a 70-year-old woman with a leathery face and gold nose
ring. She lives in a mud-walled hut with numerous barefooted
grandchildren, protected from Gir's wildlife only by a thorn fence.
She says her husband had twice been attacked by lions, both times
when he was trying to protect his cattle, but insists: "The lions are
like gods. They need food."
She is much more afraid of the sanctuary's many leopards and one
10-year-old grandson still bears the scars of a recent leopard attack on
his face and neck.
Villagers outside the sanctuary express the same reverence. They do
not mind if the lions sometimes kill their cattle, though this is a poor
area where camel carts still outnumber tractors. Occasionally, they
leave old or weak cows out for them.
"It's their right. This is the lions' land," says resident Bhupat
Babuy Bhuvva whose village, Dhanej, loses three or four cows a month.
Once or twice a year, perhaps, the lions kill humans, but the
villagers excuse them even for that. They know to steer clear when the
lions are mating, hunting or having cubs and they can read the warning
signs - the roar, the raised tail, the pawing at the ground. "Only when
humans make mistakes do they get attacked," Ms Vadher, the rescue team
leader, tells me.
Two years ago, a lioness killed one drunken youth and injured another
near the village of Rajula, when they tried to take pictures of her two
cubs on their mobile phones.
Dr Chavinath Pandey, formerly Gujarat's chief wildlife warden, went to the scene and met a female relative of the dead boy.
"She said the lioness was not at fault. Our children were at fault.
The villagers didn't want the lioness taken away. I was amazed and
moved," he tells me when we meet in the Nawab of Junagarh's former
hunting lodge, now the forest department's guesthouse. "This is a place
where the big cat and local people are in complete understanding with
each other and, to my mind, that's the reason the lions are surviving so
What does dismay the villagers, however, is the death of a lion.
When 10 drowned in flash floods last summer, hundreds of people
gathered in the village of Krankach, prayed before garlanded photos of
the lions and pledged never to let such a disaster happen again.
When a lion, frightened by an oncoming car at night, jumped off a
bridge near Sasan Gir and killed itself, the townspeople closed their
businesses for a day to mourn.
Watching the lions sleeping peacefully in Gir that afternoon, I
rejoice at a rare success in the usually bloody and depressing field of
The challenge the forest department now faces is how to prepare
hundreds of villages further away from Gir for the likely arrival of
lions in future years. It needs to teach the villagers to protect their
cattle, avoid confrontations and co-exist with the animals.
Dr Pandey sees few limits on the lions' expanding habitat. He says
there is enough food, water and shelter for them to move much further
afield. "It's difficult to see a maximum limit... In 20 years' time, you
might find lions around Ahmedabad," he says, to my astonishment.
That is more than 300km from Gir.