Monday, January 29, 2018

Waiting for the Asiatic lion at Sasan-Gir

Aruna Chandaraju January 24, 2018 16:00 IST

At Sasan-Gir, the Asiatic lion makes a brief but spellbinding appearance

It was almost two hours into our drive through Sasan-Gir forest and we still hadn’t come across its most famous inhabitant — the Asiatic lion. We had seen many of the other dwellers of what is officially called the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, located around 65 kilometres southeast of Junagadh district in Gujarat. Spread over a total area of 1,412 square kilometres, the National Park core area is 258 kilometres.

The other inhabitants made their appearance — two leopards on a tree, striped hyenas and the Indian fox. Also a sloth bear in the far distance, sambar and the chowsingha or four-horned antelope, which is the only one of its kind in the world. Like so many deer species, the antelope paused and stared briefly before scampering away into the interiors of the forest, much to the delight of our group, especially the photographers.

A few reptiles were also sighted, though the perfect camouflage meant that we almost missed them until a naturalist pointed them out. The Kamleshwar reservoir in the sanctuary is the best place to see the marsh crocodile. The park is also home to around 200 species of birds, including the pygmy woodpecker, brown fish owl, and the critically endangered white-backed and long-billed vultures. We did not sight these, but a dozen other species. The forest is also home to the wild ass and blackbuck. Exotic flora also contributes to the allure of Sasan-Gir.
But the celebrity, the Asiatic lion... He was nowhere to be seen. The Sasan-Gir sanctuary is the only natural habitat in the world, outside Africa, of the Asiatic lion; the only place where you can see them roaming free in the wild.

Finally, we spotted the king of the jungle, or rather a wildlife photographer in our group spotted him — and gestured frantically to the rest of us. The vehicle slowed down and came to a halt. The Asiatic lion, which was resting in the shade of a tree, yawned, rose slowly and crossed the path, though at quite a distance. We held our breath and watched. Cameras and cellphones captured images and videos. It was all over in barely 10 seconds... but it was the experience of a lifetime.
According to the 2015 census, currently, there are around 523 lions spread over the four districts that the forest spans. Among these, are 106 male, 201 female and 213 sub-adults, the naturalist added. This is good news, considering that indiscriminate hunting had led to the dwindling of their population.
Fortunately, due to the efforts of the Government and conservationists, the lion population has risen gradually. Even the Maldhari tribe, which lives in this region, is being compensated monetarily by the Government for the loss of their cattle by the lions.
In Junagadh
After Sasan-Gir, it was time for Junagadh town, a former princely state with a long history. With little time on our hands, we rushed through the must-sees in and around the town. There was the spectacular Mahabat Maqbara, which was sadly not so well-maintained and there were restrictions on entry. The Uparkot Fort, another historic structure, is worth a visit. A modern structure, the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, was impressive. We had no time for the Jain Derasar.
However, our bus briefly stopped on the outskirts of town so we could pick up some local delicacies like mohanthal, ghari and ghugra, before embarking on the next leg of our journey.

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