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Memories Of Gir

Memories Of Gir

I sat in a tree overlooking a dry nullah littered with lion tracks. The tethered goat was disappointingly quiet, feeding quietly instead of calling out to attract the lions. There was no time to look for another site, so I decided to wait till dark, with Ravi and the team waiting 500 m. away in the vehicle.

Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.

To my right, there was a fairly open meadow-type habitat, with thorny acacia trees and a troupe of langurs feeding peacefully. A path leading up from the acacia jungle curved behind the tree I was on. The forest and meadow were bathed in the soft evening light.

At around 1700 hrs, the langurs broke into a chorus of alarm calls. Pulse quickening, I took the dart gun and turned around to face the trail, ready to tranquillise the lion... which turned out to be a leopard! The graceful cat walked leisurely along the trail, a young langur in its mouth! Slowly I picked up the camera, focussed and took a picture. The soft click of the camera was enough to startle the wary leopard, which dropped the langur and bolted. I stayed stock-still, hoping the lion we were there to tranquillise would still turn up. As the darkness deepened, what I saw instead was the leopard returning stealthily to reclaim its dinner!  It soon vanished and I realised it must have been sitting there just out of sight for the entire period, till it felt safe enough.

The lion tracking project

Winter is the best period for wildlife field work in India. The monsoon downpours are a thing of the past and the summer heat is months away. Rain damaged roads have usually been repaired and ambient temperatures are particularly suitable for the tranquillisation and radio-collaring of large mammals. This was why winter was the ideal season for the Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) Asiatic Lion Radio-collaring Project. It is  another matter that in Gir, one feels winter’s bite only at night and early in the morning, because daytime temperatures can often shoot up almost as high as they do in summer!

Some of my most memorable wildlife encounters have been in Gir, working on our lion project, which commenced in January 1987. Many of my colleagues from the WII faculty together with trainees, and some members of the Gujarat Forest Department also descended on Sasan Gir during this time, to radio-collar the highly endangered lions so that we could record their movements and better understand their habits.

Dharam and Veer!

The dusty roads, falling brown and yellow leaves and withered nature of the jungle gave the impression that summer had already arrived. Over the preceding months, researcher Ravi Chellam had meticulously identified the lions to be radio-collared. These included an adult male, an adult female and a sub-adult near Sasan, and another  adult male near Janwadla. The local forest staff christened the first adult male Dharam, after the famous Indian film star Dharmendra! Dharam and his equally robust partner, Veer, made up the most dominant male group around Sasan.

Dharam was eventually tranquillised and radio-collared near the Kamaleshwar reservoir. Ravi had a marvellous time following the pair day and night over the hills and vales of western Gir. Their territory extended over 150 sq. km., to the east, north and south of Sasan, an area rich in chital and sambar.

Ravi’s data indicated major differences between the social organisation of the lions of Gir and those of Africa’s Serengeti. The Gir male groups attached themselves to female groups only when one or two females were in heat, or when the females were on a large kill, such as a buffalo. This is an adaptive mechanism, as the principal prey of female lions in Gir is chital. The average weight of a chital is around 40 kg., but male lions, which always dominate kills, can eat 20 to 30 kg. of meat when hungry, leaving very little for the females and cubs. Males would in effect be starving their own cubs, a no-win strategy since they took so much trouble to establish territories and win females through encounters with other males only so they could pass their genes on.

Male groups thus wander through their territory, looking for food and females in oestrous, keeping other males at bay. We concluded that the easy availability of cattle reduces their dependence on lionesses for food.

Veer and Dharam were a formidable pair. Together, they fought and won many battles with nearby male groups, receiving ghastly wounds in the process, becoming increasingly scarred. Probably because he picked up one of their domestic animals, some locals killed Veer in August 1987, with disastrous effects on Dharam. His range shrunk, he stopped roaring, lost his mane and looked practically like a large female. He died eventually, possibly of hunger (and maybe loneliness and fear). His body was a withered bag of skin and bones when Ravi found it.

Ravi and Jamal Khan, another capable WII researcher, continued their research in Gir over the course of the following year. The rest of us returned the next winter, camping first at the Kankai temple in central Gir. Those were great days. We had bought nearly 50 kg. of raw, freshly harvested groundnut from Sasan. Each morning, we would boil seven or eight kilogrammes of groundnuts in salt water, put them in a gunny bag and leave for the jungle. The groundnuts, abundant ber Zizyphus mauritiana fruits, water from the streams and occasional buttermilk from a maldhari ness sustained us through the day. At night, the Kankai temple priests would provide us a liberal supper of bajra roti with dry brinjal curry.

Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.

Leopard paradise

One morning, we awoke to find Ravi moaning in a feverish delirium. The fever showed no signs of abating and so in the evening I drove to Sasan 30 km. away and asked the local doctor, a good friend of Ravi’s, to go to Kankai immediately while I bought some provisions. While returning that night, I met the doctor, who informed me that Ravi was sleeping peacefully and should be fine by morning. Before parting, I casually asked the doctor if he had seen anything on the road. Even more casually, he replied that he only saw four leopards (one solitary, plus a mother with two cubs) and no lions!

Gir is probably one of India’s finest leopard habitats, though it is understandably more famous for its lions.

The Sudavi lions

We decided to radio-collar one of the lions that frequented the banks of the Sudavi river. The Sudavi ness (a coral built by local maldhari herdsmen) is six kilometres north of Chodawadi in central Gir. We reached Sudavi early one November morning, and were greeted by chital alarm calls along the river. Perhaps the lions were hunting. We tethered a buffalo calf in the middle of a fairly open plateau near the river. I climbed a Wrightia tinctoria tree,  about 15 m. away from the bait, and sat on a bare branch about five metres from the ground, confident that if I didn’t move, the lions wouldn’t see me.

As soon as the others left, the calf started bleating. Soon there were langur and chital alarm calls about 500 m. away and a pair of sambar bellowed and bolted to the river. Hearing rustling behind me, I slowly turned and saw several lions advancing through the bushes. One lioness suddenly rushed forward and killed the calf. I took careful aim at the lioness’ left shoulder and fired. With a growl, it ran off 10 m. and looked around, the dart in its shoulder. Other members of the pride, two adult lionesses and three one-year old cubs, joined her. They were still ignorant of my presence, as the morning sun was right behind me. Soon the lions came to the kill and the entire pride tugged at it, broke the rope, and carried it off into the scrub on the riverbank.

We gave the drug ten minutes to act, before the team raised a ruckus to force the other lions to retreat. Then we fanned through the bushes to search for the darted lioness. Despite our best efforts, we could not locate the animal, though we did recover the buffalo. Normally darted animals such as rhinos and elephants, if they are administered with immobilon or etorphine hydrochloride, will die, unless an antidote is administered. But in the case of lions, they are capable of gradually metabolising the ketamine-xylazine drug mixture.

Expecting the lions to return to the kill in the evening, we dragged it closer to a dense ber tree and tied it to a sapling. I climbed up into the tree and told everybody to return in the evening after lunch. Ravi left three assistants about 200 m. away, in case I needed help.

My perch was cool and comfortable, with ripe fruits within reach, a book to read, the dart gun and camera handy. Around 1330 hrs, a cawing jungle crow announced the presence of an adult lioness, slowly approaching the kill. Ravi was spot on when he said that lions do not mind searching for food in the afternoon sun. When it reached the kill, it stood around for a few seconds, allowing me to take a few photographs, before I fired the tranquiliser dart into the big cat’s right shoulder. It leaped over the kill, ran under my tree and disappeared into the nullah behind. I listened to the sound of it rolling and jumping in the brush, until finally there was silence.

While one of the assistants ran to bring a radio-collar and other equipment, the rest combed the nullah and within a matter of minutes, the animal was found, radio-collared and released. I returned to my hideout and the others to their resting site. It was a perplexed but happy Ravi who greeted me that evening, having been briefed of what had transpired in his absence.

The Chodawadi female, with a home range of about 120 sq. km., was a font of information for Ravi. In the dry season, she and her pride, averaging five animals, largely confined themselves to the dry riverine tract. Although Ravi saw this female at 109 locations, only once was she with an adult male, confirming the weak social bonds between territorial males and their pride females.

Prawns and failed headlights

We decided to celebrate the success of our radio-collaring programme that year with Ismail Babu, a maldhari friend of Ravi’s, who had his ness near the Kamleshwar reservoir. Ravi and Jamal were going to Veraval to buy prawns, the main course of our dinner celebration. I asked Ravi to drop me between Sasan and the reservoir near the Hiran river, where I hoped to photograph lions, and then walk to Ismail’s ness by nightfall.

After an unrewarding evening by the river, I made my way to the ness, three kilometres down the road. On the way, a leopard emerged from the scrub jungle, heading towards the river. It crouched on seeing me. As I took out the camera and advanced, it silently retreated into the jungle. Ismail greeted me with the warmth of a true friend, and we drank tea and chatted, waiting for Ravi and Jamal. Night came but there was no sign of them. Finally, at 2200 hrs we had a simple supper and I went to sleep on a cot in the shed near Ismail’s house. There were about 50 buffaloes around me, and the ness’ large circular thorn fence protected us all. Around midnight, something alarmed the buffaloes, probably a lion wandering around outside looking for abandoned cattle. Things soon quietened down as the cat moved on.

The next morning, on reaching Sasan, Jamal explained to me that their jeep headlights had failed the previous night, so he had to sit on the jeep’s bonnet with the torch, while Ravi drove back very, very slowly! They reached Sasan well past midnight. The prawn curry and rice that was to have been last night’s dinner now became that day’s breakfast.

A close shave

On my return to Gir the next year, we decided to radio-track for one full night the Leria (eastern Gir) male that had a range of 230 sq. km. We located the Leria male with his male companion as darkness was falling. A thin mist had already enveloped the forest, dimming the young moon and the countless stars. Ravi drove the open jeep, Dhananjai Mohan, a brilliant forest officer, sat at the edge of the front seat, and I stood in the middle, radio-tracking. Roaring, the males moved from one ness to another, looking for the old and sick cattle that are usually left out by the maldharis at night. We followed them in the dim moonlight, headlights off. Once a sambar bellowed in a nullah barely 50 m. from the road. But the lions were after easier prey…

The males left the road and entered the forest, so we drove ahead and turned the vehicle around to face the direction from which they would be coming. We parked on the bridge, leaving enough space for the lion to pass us. Soon we saw a male walk towards us on the road and spray mark the bridge wall. To our surprise, the lion continued towards us and walked past the jeep at touching distance! Dhananjai leaned as far inside the vehicle as possible, though the lion walked on without giving Dhananjai even a glance. After it had gone about 100 m. away, we collapsed into nervous, excited laughter.

Lions intersperse their nighttime hunting and prowling with naps. Around 0200 hrs, the radio signals indicated that the lions were resting, and Ravi knew by experience that this would last for about two hours. We decided to rest as well. We built a small fire on the road against the bitter cold, spread our sheets around it and slept. Around 0300 hrs there was a chorus of roars and growls. The lions were fighting! We sat on our ‘beds’ and watched stunned as a male came running towards us, chased by another male. Both passed about 10 m. from us without paying any attention to us. Ravi suggested that perhaps another male had entered the resting pair’s area and was chased away. 

Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.

Encounter with a rusty spotted cat

A few days later, back in Chodawadi, we were out in the jeep one extremely cold winter morning at around 0400 hrs. Ravi was driving and I was in front, camera and flash ready. Drowsy, I had not noticed that the alignment between the flash and the camera’s shutter speed was not right. We noticed a small cat-like animal shivering on the road. I took a few pictures and peered carefully at the animal, which was rusty-brown in colour with numerous small spots. I did not realise that I was taking perhaps the first picture of the rusty spotted cat in the wild. The slides were soon tucked away and forgotten.

Months later, I received a copy of the Bombay Natural History Society’s Hornbill magazine, with a marvellous picture of a rusty spotted cat taken by Bharat Pathak, a devoted and capable forest officer. Bharat had found the cat up a small tree in Gir while on one of his night drives.

My memories of Gir are replete with lions, leopards, hyenas, nimble-footed chousingha and chinkara. Gir has given me much over the years, and I hope that it will continue to survive and thrive…

As a researcher, I worry about the changes being wrought on its habitat. The pilgrimages to the numerous temples, for instance, show signs of getting out of hand. Increased limestone demands by cement factories pose a threat to the surrounding scrub forests, which form the buffer for wildlife. Under no circumstances should we allow even an inch of limestone-rich forest land to be denotified, as this will harm the lions’ future. The growth of prosperous but water-intensive sugarcane cultivation around Gir must be checked or the entire area could turn into a saline wasteland.

I hope, one day, to see a Gir free of maldharis. As suggested by the WII, the teak trees, which have little forage value, must also be thinned to create more grasslands so that the lion’s wild prey base, particularly chital, can multiply and be sustained. If even some of these measures are adopted, Gir will continue to harbour Asiatic lions, leopards and rusty spotted cats for decades to come.

Author: Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh
With inputs from Dr. Ravi Chellam

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXIII No. 6, December 2003


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