I have interrupted my series on France and Paris as I don’t want to wax eloquent about a city that has just been traumatised by a terrorist attack. So I take you instead to Gir National Park in Gujarat, which is the only place where you can find the Asiatic Lion in the world.
The Asiatic lion was once widely distributed from Persia to India but due to indiscriminate hunting the numbers reduced drastically till they were reduced to a handful in the forests of Junagarh and Sasan Gir in Gujarat. The then Maharaja of Junagarh declared it his state animal and banned hunting of the majestic animal. Conservation efforts continued post independence and numbers have steadily increased in the region. As these animals are concentrated in one region there is always the risk of a epidemic wiping all of them out.
With that background of the animal we set out to see, let me get into the trip itself. The Gir national park is located in the Junagarh region of Gujarat and the closest airport is Rajkot. The best time to visit from the animal viewing point of view is March to May. But the best weather to visit is winter and that time also has the added advantage of having a huge number of birds in the region. We had planned our trip around a long Republic Day weekend in January. We flew into Rajkot on a early morning flight from Mumbai. As we had hired a car for the duration of our trip which also included the Little Rann of Kutch ( Topic for another post) we met the driver Basheerbhai outside the airport and set off for Sasan Gir. The road from Rajkot to Sasan Gir is very smooth and the drive very comfortable. We reached our hotel in Sasan Gir, The Gir Birding Lodge in 3 hrs (180 km).
The birding lodge is one of the many hotels outside the park and new ones seem to be coming up which doesn’t seem like a good idea so close to the park itself. I chose the place because it is located in a sprawling mango plantation and known for numerous birds frequenting the plantation, where I could use my 300mm telephoto lens to my hearts content. The rooms are individual cottages which are neat and have sparse but good quality furnishing and a basic bathroom with continuous supply of hot water which is essential in winter. I chose a cottage called ” The Flycatcher” ( All are named after birds) which is facing the orchard as it gave me the opportunity to photograph birds from my porch. Sure enough I got great photos of small birds ( Sunbirds, Tailorbirds, Ioras, White eyes, Bee eaters ) and small raptors ( Shikras, Black kites and Owlets ) in the orchard itself. All my spare time between safaris was spent on the porch and in the Orchards and I valued it as much as the time spent in the park itself. Food is also included in the price of the room and is basic but extremely tasty and freshly prepared fare and no item was repeated in the two days that we stayed. We highly recommend the place if you are going to Sasan Gir.
The permits for safaris in the park itself need to be booked online (http://girlion.in)three months in advance as they are limited in number and we had booked 2 morning and 2 evening safaris on the day they opened. The safaris are in a open top Jeep that can hold 6 people but we were only 2 as sharing of permits is not allowed. You have to line up at 5.30 am at Sinh Sadan which is the Park rangers headquarters and the Government hotel near the park, for alloting a vehicle and guide, though online booking makes it pretty much hassle free. The only job Basheerbhai had for 2 days was ferrying us from our hotel to Sinh Sadan and back. The park is divided into 7 zones and the zone for a safari is allotted at the time of the safari itself. As we were doing more than one safaris you can request the officers to allot another zone ( or the same zone if you feel its lucky) for the next safari, they usually agree. All jeeps are accompanied by a forest ranger/ guide. This guy is the one who can make or break your safari and the promise of a reward for a good sighting goes very far in tilting the scales in favour of spotting a lion.
The secret is that these guides are in contact with the rangers patrolling in the park and can accurately take you to the most probable point of lion sighting if they so desire. We are old hands at Indian National Parks and safaris and knew where and when palms needed to be greased. No point in spending thousands on safaris and being on holier than thou in giving a few hundreds to guides for a better safari experience. We saw more than 15 lions and lionesses , 3 leopards ( though that was sheer luck, no one can track a leopard), scores of spotted deer, sambar, wild boar and various species of birds in our four safaris and that is very good for winter time. The zones 4 and 7 take you to the lake in the park where you can see sunbathing crocodiles and water birds. The zones 2 and 6 are mainly scrubby grasslands more famous for their lion sightings. Zone 1 is densely forested and known mainly for its bird life. So you may pick and choose after your first safari according to your interests. As we had our fill of birds in the hotel itself we chose 2 safaris each in the grasslands and the lake region. Being only 2 people in our gypsy it was very comfortable, except for the time when we lost track of time photographing a pride of lions and the driver had to race like he was in the Dakar rally to avoid being heftily fined for exiting the park after closing time!!
Two days in the park and 4 safaris is the minimum we do in any park as you can’t expect to see everything in one safari. It is not a zoo after all!!
Other nearby places of interest are the Somnath temple, but we had no time for that. After 2 great days amidst the majestic asiatic lion it was time to move on to the Flamingoes and the Wild Asses at the Little Rann of Kutch. But that is topic for another post, another day..
Hope you enjoyed.. For any queries on the park please comment on the post itself..
My solidarity with the people of Paris, I will complete that series when the time is right..