Gir National Park…

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 fl ame 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.

History And Culture

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. Located in southwest Saurashtra, the Gir forest extends across an area of 1,412 and is clothed by a combination of grassland, scrub and forests of teak that grow on lateritic soils.

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. In recent years the population of wild ungulates has risen and therefore attacks on domestic stock has come down. As the day heats up, lions seem to prefer resting particularly in October or November, which is their mating season.

Vegetation / Flora

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.