Our Readers Special Report
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Hiren Khambhayta is a businessman whose hobby is wildlife photography – but his special passion is for the Asiatic lions of Gir National Park. These are Hiren's images of and report on:
The Last Wild Asiatic Lions on Earth
The last place on earth left to see and photograph wild Asiatic lions, is India’s Gir National Park, located near to the Junagadh district of Gujarat state. These are the world’s only lions to survive in the wild outside of Africa and (the) final remaining African lion (Panthera leo leo) sub species.
Of All India’s Big Cats, The Lions Hold Special Meaning
The Asiatic lion is not the only iconic big cat species that India proudly hosts in one single country; there are four others: the Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, clouded leopard, and the snow leopard - but it is the lions of Gir that hold a special meaning for me.
Once threatened nearly to extinction, the lions have made an amazing rebound. (Editor's note: Asiatic lions once roamed from Greece throughout all of Asia)
How India’s 20th Century Rulers Saved the Asiatic Lion
Persecution and trophy hunting by India’s 19th-century rulers and before nearly caused the extirpation of the species. By the start of the 20th century, the remaining lion population totaled just 12 individuals. It is only through the strict protection imposed for the species and the foresightedness of the Junagadh’s Nawab in the early 1900s, that (wild) Asiatic Lions still survive today. Their (continuing) conservation efforts have resulted in India’s Asiatic lion population numbering 521 individuals as per (the results of the most recent Gir) lion census in 2015,
Asiatic vs. African Lions
Asiatic lions have certain physical traits that are different from African Lions. Asiatic Lions are 10-20 per cent smaller than their African cousins with comparatively sparse and skimpy mane and sometimes even a little mane-less “bald” area on top of their head. Another characteristic that separates the Asiatic Lion from their African cousins is the distinct fold of skin at the belly in both males and females (missing in African lions)
Villagers & Lions, A Unique Understanding
Visitors to Gir may be surprised to notice two unusual things pertaining to these lions. The first is that the lions of Gir rarely attack humans. There are villages inside the park as well as semi-nomadic tribal herdsman called Maldharis. The herdsman and the lions seem to have an understanding, a mutual respect, maybe centuries old. The lions do take some cattle, and the government does subsidize the losses, but a study in 2013 found that 30% of the cattle predated were unproductive. It also found that were the Maldharis lived the lions thrived.
The Many Species of Gir National Park
Gir Provides the Perfect Habitat for Many Wildlife Species. Gir National Park is a semi-evergreen flora with grasslands, hills, streams, and rivers and with a couple of larger bodies of water which also has a maximum number of Mugger crocodiles, so (it) holds a unique spot in every wildlife enthusiast’s list.
These uniformly colored big cats have made Gir their home because the forest remains dry and pale for most of the months except monsoon. Although their African lion cousins may reside in (a) broad variety of habitats, Asiatic Lions choose Gir’s dry deciduous and teak forests with acacia savanna which helps them to get camouflage.
Gir Forest National Park is the home of 39 species of mammals of which the main attractions are Asiatic Lions and Indian leopards. Along with them, there are many other mammals to see like Sambar, Blackbuck, Chinkara, Spotted deer (chital), Blue bull (nilgai), and Chousingha (the world’s only four-horned antelope) and many more.
Gir forest hosts about 300 species of birds among them main attractions are Asian paradise flycatcher, Tickell's blue flycatcher, white-eye, common and Marshal’s iora, black-naped monarch, white-browed fantail, red-headed (king) vulture, oriental honey-buzzard, Scop's owls, mottled wood owl, nightjars and many more
A Gir National Park Safari
Kamleshwar Dam: Crocodiles
Kamleshwar Dam, often termed as “the lifeline of Gir”. You can step up at the watchtower and capture a panoramic view of the forest and tribal villages. It is also a good spot to see the Mugger crocodiles.
Maaldharis Nes: Where Lions Are Part of Village Culture
Unlike other big cats, lions are social animals and they have proved to be social with the people of Gir as well. They reside within the local communities of Kathiyawar called Maaldharis. The unique bond between the man and animal is seen here in the region with high tolerance of the animals and of the community as well. (The villagers have) affection and cultural reverence towards the majestic cats.
The Maaldharis, living in the Gir region with their old profession of milk and cattle still have their homes called Nes inside the sanctuary area. But lions rarely kill cattle like cows and buffalos. Although people over there make fences of dried branches (as) a sort of boundary for lions.
There are cases that people ( villagers) are going walking and (the) lion doesn’t do any harm to them and people go to their farm at night for watering plants and lions do stay there also.
Sometimes they behave as friends as their existence (the lions) makes their farm safe from other animals, like deer, who destroy their vegetation by eating (it).
DEVALIYA PARK: The Gir Interpretation Zone
Devaliya Safari Park also known as Gir Interpretation Zone - Devaliya, is the establishment of particular eco-tourism zone to reduce (the) overload of tourists from Gir Forest Visit and to provide whole wildlife of Gir at (a) single place in safe habitats.
This Interpretation Zone comprises of 412 ha chain link fenced area which is regarded as ‘Gir in a nutshell’ covering all habitat types and wildlife of Gir. The basic aim of creating this facility is to provide an opportunity of viewing lions and other animals in their natural habitat within a short period of time at cheaper rates. Gir Interpretation Zone is 12kms from Gir Sanctuary.
Spotting a lion is guaranteed here because some 15-20 lions (approx.) roam around freely in this cordoned area. You can actually skip it if you had a good sighting during jeep safari as safari here will be in (a) bus but given that you have to be patient to spot a lion inside the national park itself, you may consider using this (the Interpretation Zone) as a backup if sighting lions in National Park was not fulfilled.
(Note: The Interpretation Zone is 12 km (7.4 miles) from Gir National Park. Open: 8AM to 11AM & 3PM to 5PM)
Which is the best season to visit Gir national park? Summer, From March to June, is the best season to spot lions.
The dry forest makes the forest less dense and hot weather makes lions move frequently towards water reserves. However, Gujarat tends to be very warm in summer. So, you can consider visiting Gir national park in winter also. Spotting chances are less but still good.
A good time to visit for birding is from December to February when many migrants can be seen. However, the hot months of May also show many resident species in breeding plumage and giving mating calls.
Note: National Park remains closed from 16th June to 15th Oct every year. This is the monsoon season, so lots of mud and water make tracks non-assessable. This is also the said to be the lion’s breeding season, so the government does not want to disturb them during this time.
Festival days like Diwali (the Festival of Light marking the Hindu New Year) and Janmashtami (Birth of Lord Krishna) (also) not the best time to visit due to heavy rush. (Note: These festival times are determined by the lunar calendar so the dates fluctuate from year to year)
Watch this preview of Nature's documentary, "The Wandering Lions of India" for more on the amazing human/predator partnership that is propelling the return of the last Asiatic lions.
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