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Gir National Park
Scraggly, brown, dry and thorny. Gir, the last bastion of the Asiatic lion, is a beautiful but harsh teak dominated habitat in the Junagadh district in Kathiawar, Gujarat. Far from the stereotypical vision most people have of forests in the tropics, Gir is anything but 'lush'. It is, nevertheless, one of India's most precious and vital biodiversity vaults. A semi-arid wilderness emblazoned by rust, beige and the occasional scarlet, when the flame of the forest and silk cotton trees are in bloom, Gir brings to mind visions of distant Africa, despite the fact that it lacks the extensive grasslands of the Masai Mara. Yet, something in these ecological circumstances proved to be just what the lions needed, for it is only here, in relatively small fragments of forests, supported by 'poor quality' teak, that one of the world's rarest large cat survives.
Once distributed across Asia Minor and Arabia, in centuries gone by lions had colonised lands in India as far north as Saharanpur, Moradabad and Ludhiana, eastwards to Bihar and southwards to the Narmada valley. But a combination of habitat destruction and brutal horseback and machan hunting almost wiped the species off the face of the earth.The last lion to be killed in Gujarat was in 1870, but in Central India, where no one protected them, the last one was shot in 1884. Forced into this tiny, forested western corner of the country, around 300 lions now share their fragile home with villagers, cattle and India's robust industrial ambitions.
Till recently there were 130 or so nesses (corales) or settlements of a unique clan of graziers called Maldharis who lived cheek by jowl with the lions together with their famous 'Gir cattle', buffaloes and goats. They are an intrinsic part of the history of Gir and most naturalists through the ages have acknowledged that few people know the lions better than the Maldharis. In fact most elderly Maldharis will tell you that they used to look upon the lions as their protectors as roving gangs of bandits would give their habitations the go by, for fear of the lions. Over the years, however, the Maldhari community has had to suffer many hardships and their children now most often opt for life away from the rigours of the forest.
As many as seven significant rivers pass through Gir: the Hiran, Saraswati, Datardi, Shingoda, Machhundri, Ghodavadi and Raval. The water from these rivers is key to the survival of the lions. This supply is also invariably the last source available to downstream human communities when their wells and streams run dry just prior to the arrival of the next life-giving monsoon.
Semi-arid and deciduous forests clothe around 10 per cent of Gir towards the east. The rest comprises stunted forests interspersed by hilly grasslands, which are themselves cut by steep rocky ravines. Towards the north, scrublands dominate. Despite the whittling down of the vast habitat that was once Gir, inside the protected area the seeds of natural renewal exist. The eastern forests harbour stunted Acacias, while the northern part supports largely scrubland. On the northern hills, (with their laterite soils) teak trees grow to heights of around 10 m. In the relatively well-watered regions, the forest slowly graduates from an open to closed canopy with taller trees, particularly in the central and southwestern parts. Tree species are mostly salai, dhak, ber, flame of the forest, jamun, some species of babul and the odd banyan. The hilltops are grassy. The east, with its open deciduous forest, receives less than 600 mm. of rain and this can only support thorn forests and savanna, dotted with four to eight metre tall Acacias and Zizyphus. To the west and southwest shrubs are widely spaced and surrounded by seas of grass. Predictably, along the river courses evergreen vegetation grows. It is here that the lions choose to spend much of their time, where the hunting is good.
If you stay a couple of days you are almost certainly going to see the lions. Slightly smaller in size than the African lion and with a smaller mane, it is a shaggier creature with dense belly fringes and a distinctive belly fold. Sighting a large male in the wild is an impressive sight. Your best bet would be to step out early in the morning, when most lions, be they loners, pairs or prides, are out on patrol. Lions perceive little threat from humans and are therefore possible to see at fairly close quarters. Gir is also a great place to see leopards, or panthers as they are also called. Much smaller than lions, they are more agile, climb trees and therefore manage to keep out of the way of the heavier, more powerful cats. Sambar, chital (now abundant), nilgai (the largest Indian antelope), four horned antelope and chinkara are the deer prey species seen all over the park.Other prey species include langur and wild boar.
Porcupine, hare and jackal are also found in Gir. Carnivores such as wildcats, jackals, foxes, hyaenas and ratels are found in the park, each occupying their own very special niche.There are 25 species of reptiles in Gir, the most visible of which are the marsh crocodile, which can be seen in the rivers and the Kamleshwar dam reservoir. Monitor lizards are also possible to see. Pythons, cobras, the fish-eating keelbacks and whipsnakes are some of the other snakes that inhabit the park.
More than 200 species of birds have been listed from Gir, including raptors such as Ospreys, Perigrine Falcons, Fish Owls, Crested Serpent Eagles, Bonelli's Eagles, Goshawks and Pale and Montagu's Harriers. Water birds include Redshanks, Jacanas, Plovers, Marsh Sandpipers, Ruddy Shelduck, Spotbills, Shovellers, Nakta, Little Grebes, Lesser Whistling Teal, Ibis and Painted Storks. Other avians that might keep birdwatchers busy are Wrynecks, Nightjars, Pygmy Woodpeckers, Indian Pittas, Shrikes, Drongos, Barbets, Indian Rollers, Grey Partridge, Jungle Bush Quail, Painted Sandgrouse, Green Pigeons, Paradise Flycatchers, Bush Larks, Bee Eaters, Minivets and Warblers.
There are three main tracks in the forest, all well known to the many drivers and guides. Among the more productive drives are ones you might take early in the morning or late in the evening between Sasan and Kankai, Baval Chowk, Chodavadi and Tulsi Shyam. Other interesting routes are to Deva Danga and Riley's.
Water is a scarce resource in Gir, but around the rivers and reservoirs crocodiles do thrive and there is a breeding farm at Sasan (strictly for release into the wild, not for commerce) that is worth a visit. When water sources dry in the summer, these reptiles are concentrated around the five perennial streams and a few waterholes, which are also magnets for all diversity of wildlife found here.
The Kamleshwar dam built on the Hiran river is one of the best places to see crocs and bathing is strictly prohibited. Dewaliya, 12 km. away is the location of the Gir Interpretation Zone, where lions can be seen and photographed in a large 4.12 sq. km. enclosure. Buses take visitors to Dealiya from Sasan at 9 a.m. on most days and a minibus will drive you fairly close to the lions.
In summer, light cotton garments are suitable while light woollens are required in winter.
Jeeps are the mode of travel as walking is not permitted.Take a jeep and not a minibus into the park for it is in the smaller trails that you will come across the lion, which the minibus cannot take.Permits are issued at the Park Information Centre in the Sinh Sadan Guest House in Sasan Gir. Jeeps and Matadors can be hired from the Forest Department, Sasan Gir with guides.
No private vehicles are allowed to enter the sanctuary. The jeep tours take up to six people along with a guide for three hours. Gujarat Tourism buses are available from the GT, Rangmahal, Diwan Chowk, and Junagadh. Gujarat Tourism also organises park tours from Keshod including an overnight stay at the park.
Look for animals near water sources, salt licks or grassy areas. Deer species are very nervous and most often they see or hear you before you see them. If you see them bound away you know what happened. Keep silent as you move around.
The Conservator Forests (Wildlife), Sardar Baug, Junagadh, Gujarat – 362001.
The Sanctuary Superintendent, Sasan Gir, Junagadh, Gujarat – 362001.
The Conservator of Forests, Sardar Baug, Junagadh, Gujarat – 362001.
The best time to visit the forest is any time between December and April. The weather is hot and dry, and in summer (February to June) temperatures can soar to over 430C. Winter (October-February) temperatures can be as low as 50C.
Monsoons last from June to October, when the park is closed to visitors. Gir is semi-arid with scanty rainfall (1,016 mm.) and almost every third year there is a drought with less than 500mm. of rainfall
Sasan Gir is well equipped to stay in with forest bungalows and tourist lodges available. But always book in advance. The Forest Department runs Sinh Sadan Guest House, which has reasonably priced large rooms amidst well-kept gardens.
There is a good restaurant on the premises. For bookings, call the Conservator of Forests, Sasan Gir, Dist Junagadh. Tel.: 02877-85540.
Off the main road, the Gujarat Tourism Department Corporation runs the Lion Safari Lodge. The rooms are comfortable with attached baths. Excellent meals are served in the dining hall. Contact Gujarat Tourism, Rangmahal, Diwan Chowk, Junagadh. The ITDC also has a Forest Lodge, and any ITDC branch can help with bookings.
An upmarket option is the Gir Lodge, Sasan Gir, run by the Taj Group of hotels. It has 29 large rooms near the river about 200 m. from the forest lodge. Double rooms and suites are also available. The restaurant offers a variety of different cuisines to guests. Tel.: Sasan Gir: 02871-85501/ 04; Fax: 85528 or The Taj, Mumbai Tel.: 022-2022626.
By Air: Keshod is the closest airport about 60 km. away. It is well connected by road to Gir.
By Rail: Junagadh railway station is 65 km. from Gir and is well connected by road. Sasan is the closest railway station, on the meter-gauge line. Slow steam trains run to Veraval twice daily, and to Delwada and Junagadh once a day.
By Road: Sasan Gir to Ahmedabad 895 km., Rajkot 160 km., Junagadh 65 km., Veraval 43 km. State transport buses make the two-hour trip between Junagadh and Veraval via Sasan Gir throughout the day.
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