(Panthera leo persica, locally known as Babber Sher, Sinh)
As the year end gets closer I wonder where I should go to feed my appetite for the wilderness, this time as usual i was almost focused on tiger country somewhere like Kanha or Bandhavgarh. Then out of shear curiosity or should i say my luck I contacted Mr. Yogendra Shah (the lion man as we all call him on INW). It was only due to his help that I decided to go to the land of the lion and eventually had a great time and some good photo opportunities too.
Situated in the district of Junagadh, Gir is the last place where the Asiatic Lion breathes. Raised from the brink of extinction about 20 to somewhere around 300 today, this is a success story most people don’t realize (of course if not protected properly these figures could easily diminish). In the land of tiger, the Lions roar seems to have faded away from lime light. Apart from the Asiatic Lions gir also boast a good number of leopards and large population of Marsh crocodiles.
I reached Sasan Gir on the afternoon of 1st dec 2007, with an entire week ahead and with hope of some good photo opportunities, I was received by Mr. Lalit a brilliant and excellent gypsy driver who drove me into the gir every day for the entire week of my stay. I was very impressed by his skills as a driver and also as a guide to locate the best that gir had to offer. Over the week, i stayed at various places ranging from an excellent wilderness farm I think it was called “Lions paw” (arranged by yogendra) to the govt owned Sinh Sadan (very neat and clean) to the backpackers delight Annapoorna (would prefer sinh sadan if rooms are available), they all served their purpose well,
I even managed to visit (although it was in the night) a 100 or so years old private bungalow (made by some raja) inside the forest, deep inside the forest on my last day of stay i was treated with some excellent dinner & hospitality by Lalit, Razzaq and other guides (i was quite touched that they invited me in their circle, these are the fleeting moments that give life its meaning).
Over the week I drove early mornings around 6:30 a.m. and afternoons at 3:30 p.m. in search of some photo opportunities. Gir has apart from lions good no of leopards and sightings are quite frequent compared to most parks in India.
Gir’s dry deciduous forest is perfect for the lions and they blend very well. I should say the trips were one of the best I have had in my life, mostly due to the people who where so nice and trying to help me, like my gypsy driver Lalit who used to go about doing the info gathering for the next safari, the guides (specially Eisa bhai, Mohan, Bhiku bhai to name a few) who knew I was very serious of what I was doing and did their best to help me around. These people earn their living just being a guide (official charge of Rs 50 per trip), but don’t get taken away by that, you cant buy them by your money, what these guys need is respect and appreciation of what they do and once they have that, they would go to unbelievable extent to help you with their knowledge. It was my pleasure to get insight from these knowledgeable people. I even learned from Eisa bhai how to distinguish the alarm call of lion from a leopard, how the jackals and leopard usually hunt, amazing wealth of info if you can get to their hearts. Their simplicity is a disguise, I m sure their knowledge would put to shame most PhD’s.
My first lion was a young male and after seeing these lions for some days, I think they can be rightly called the Golden Asiatic lion; they glow like gold in their primes. They become grayish as they mature over time. Normally living upto 10-15 years of age (I heard the forest official saying that the oldest male is over 18 years old).
One more striking feature of gir apart from the lions are the Maldharis, whose nesses (small hutments inside the forest) dot the landscape of gir. You can see the striking features of these people which easily distinguish them from other locals, their life revolves around cattle as they graze the buffaloes and cows in the santuary.
At first you would be surprised how comfortable they are living inside the forest grazing their cattle. They and their cattle play a very important part in gir, infact it is estimated that 36% of the lion’s diet comprises of domestic cattle mostly razed by the maldharis. I heard someone say that if you see a maldhari you would not find a lion nearby. Lions seem to have learned to stay away from the maldharis (lessons learned during childhood I guess)
One thing about gir that I cannot forget is how close people (forest guards, trackers) can actually get to these lions or rather how close the lions tolerate humans.
I had a few moments of my own while shooting some of them as close as 15 feet on foot (the locals wouldn’t be surprised as you are, they probably know people who got closer, I wouldn’t advice you to do this unless you have proper permissions and of course a knowledgeable person around to guide you, after all these are wild animals).
During my stay I was quite lucky to have seen quite a few males including 2 full grown ones (have heard they are quite uncommon to sight).
It was also my pleasure to meet Mr. Yogendra who specially came over just to help me around with the people and wildlife of gir. He is a gentleman and his hospitality is something i ll never forget. Infact he was quite lucky for me and my best sighting happened while he was there. We saw a lion chasing (infact there were 2 males, didn’t see the other) a lioness (who already had cubs hidden somewhere). i learned that she later submitted to the male for what can be called false mating (or forced mating by the male, in any case i am no expert on lions and cannot confirm what such a behaviour means).
After some good lions sightings I tried my luck to track leopards for 2 days. I was not as lucky with leopards as I was with lions, just had to suffice with a glimpse. The other tourists where quite lucky and I would hear news of some one or the other seeing 1 or even 2 leopards on safari, that too for as long as 10 mins (Vow it would fill a lot of my memory cards). I even went to kankai in search of leopards (some 50 kms away named after the temple in that location) this is part of the National Park and was quite denser than the sanctuary area where most safaris occur. No leopard luck but on my return i found a group of jackals trying their luck with cheetals, they couldnt get a cheetal small enough to catch but I got pretty lucky as these where some of my first jackals shots I was getting.
In the evening i got some good Chausingha images (lifer for me), what else could i ask for, over all I had a great time and fantastic trip and these memories will surely tempt me to go again soon…
Who I hired for safaris
Lalit (for gypsy, contact: 09879118283).
Eisa bhai, Mohan bhai, Bhikku bhai to name a few (Guides with excellent knowledge)
One more guy i need to mention is Mehboob (he was good company / guide / good cook and has a veg restaurant in gir).
The most important thing that I learned for photographing wildlife is not just learning how to photograph but also keeping the locals like the guides, drivers and trackers of the forest happy by appreciating what they do. These are simple people and self respect is more important to them than to most city dwellers. Connect with them kindly and you will see how they help you.
I would also suggest you tip the guides & trackers for their deserving work. (You should surely give them more than the official guide fees atleast when you have a sighting.)
Most important is that you enjoy the forest, even if you don’t see the animals some time and don’t be like the tourist who after seeing 6 lions in one safari said to the guide, how come there are more than 300 lions and you showed us only 6.
A few more images
You can see & buy asiatic lion images here
(You can see these and other images on http://talatkhalid.com)