The Asiatic Lion’s Last Stronghold: India’s Gir Forest (1 of 2)

When I first read in my guidebook that there were still lions surviving in the wild in India, I was surprised. I knew that in ancient times lions had been found all over the Middle East, and it made sense that their range might have extended into India; however, I had a vague recollection of having read that lions and cheetahs had been made extinct in Asia. Having discovered otherwise, I decided that a visit to the Gir Forest, the last remaining habitat of the Asiatic lion, would have to be part of my trip to India.

Sasan Gir National Park lies in Gujarat state in western India, southwest of the state capital Ahmedabad. It’s possible to reach the village of Sasan on a narrow-gauge steam-powered railway, although it is frequently more convenient to take a bus from Junagadh, the nearest large town. Coming in from Ahmedabad, the land is green and fertile and quite flat. The fact that this greenness is due to irrigation and not rainfall becomes apparent as you get nearer to Sasan, and the scenery changes to parched, brown, desert-like hills with scarcely any green to be seen, even on the trees.

I visited in March, three months before the arrival of the monsoon, and it must be even more barren and dusty by June. In contrast, when the monsoon rains are here, from mid-June to mid-October, the park is entirely closed as the dirt roads become an impassable quagmire.

Like most national parks in India, Sasan Gir consists of a core zone, in which human activities such as grazing, wood-cutting and farming are banned, and a surrounding buffer zone in which humans and animals coexist. At Sasan Gir, the core area is about 300 square kilometres, with a buffer zone of 1200 square kilometres. This is a far cry from the situation in 1900, when the Gir Forest, then the personal hunting preserve of the Nawab of Junagadh, covered nearly 10,000 square kilometres.

Within the buffer zone, the Maldhari, tribal herders of buffalo and cattle, graze their herds extensively, which accounts largely for the lifeless, grassless appearance of much of the forest. The deer species in the park, including the ubiquitous Bambi-like chital or spotted deer, as well as nilgai, sambar, chinkara and chowsingha, survive almost exclusively by browsing leaves from the trees.

The lion population, having shifted its hunting patterns to respond to prey availability, now survives largely on the Maldhari’s water buffalo and cattle. An ecological survey in the 1970s found that three-quarters of the lions’ diet came from domestic livestock. The Maldhari are compensated by the government if one of their animals becomes lion fodder, however.

In this arid, overgrazed, unpromising-looking landscape live the last 300 Asiatic lions in the wild. Their scientific name is Pantera leo persica, a separate subspecies from the African Pantera leo leo. Their population has increased dramatically since 1900, when it was estimated that no more than 15 lions were left in the Gir and Lord Curzon requested that the Nawab stop hunting them.

An excellent visitor’s centre at Sasan charts the steady decline of the Asiatic lion. Since 1781, confirmed sightings or, more commonly, shootings, have been reported in Iraq and Pakistan, as well as much of northern and central India as far west as the Sunderbans area of West Bengal, while questionable sightings have come in from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. The last report from outside the Gir Forest was in 1884. Lions, because of their social lifestyle (they live in groups of up to 10 or more) and their penchant for announcing their whereabouts by roaring, were far easier prey for hunters than were tigers.

I found it interesting that in the art of ancient India, there are far more depictions of lions than of tigers. The emperor Ashoka’s royal pillars were crowned by lions surrounding the Buddhist Wheel of Law; this is now the state seal of India. Vishnu was incarnated as Narasimha, half man and half lion, not as a man-tiger. Buddhist iconography also gives prominence to lions and neglects tigers. I wonder whether in the past lions were more numerous and prominent than tigers, or whether this reflects the respect shown to lions and their use as royal symbols throughout the Indo-European and Semitic world, as far afield as lion-free England.

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