Thursday, 2 April 2015


This morning our drive took us to the village of Shirvan Jhambur, one of three Gir settlements of the Sidis, black people of African origin who speak in Gujarati but maintain their own culture, including dances portraying the jungle's animals. One story tells that they are Maasai people (though it is clear from their physiques and faces that they are not) and that they followed their friend and foe the lion in distant history as it colonised India. It is also said that some centuries ago their enslaved ancestors were brought here by the Nawab of Junagadh, whose family history weaves through the recent story of the lion in India too.

We saw no lions this morning. (The past three months have been so astonishing that I have come to regard any safari without a wild cat as a personal affront.) It was beautiful, all the same, to be in the Gir forest as the birds sang their songs to the new day and velvet-coated chital picked through the fallen leaves of teak on the jungle floor. Under scrubby trees by the uneven road lustrous Indian robins hopped and a white-breasted waterhen jerked nervously across a riverbed. The chime of coppersmith barbets and the happy chatter of grey francolins filled the warming morning air and plum-headed parakeets tore at the green fresh seeds of Butea.

No lions but many mammals. Grey mongoose, sharp eyes and sharp nose alert to movement in the crisp litter. Nilgai and sambar, long legs ready to bolt at the sight of one of Gir's great cats: lion or leopard. Five-striped palm-squirrels chiding passers-by with their harsh chinks and flicking their nervous tails in the trees. Northern plains grey langurs, slimmer than in central India, with a dusky wash to their fur and lithe limbs. All these jungle creatures, and more, we met this morning.

Lion portrayed in a mural at the park headquarters

This afternoon we spent with the lions. Not far into the park a male, aged around five, sat in the shade of tangled trees, with jungle crows fussing round him and his chital kill. As we watched two frightened chital calls came from the jungle, then excitement pulsed through the jeeps behind us. The lion's brother had emerged; he walked to a water tank to drink, then slowly to the shade to join his sated sibling.

Past peacocks, magpie-robins, petronias and red-vented bulbuls we went until, rounding a corner, our guide Akshay called out that he had seen a lion. How he had seen this lion I cannot think. A young male with the bare beginnings of a mane was lying behind a water trough, with only his head partly visible. Once we had stopped we could see that close by, flat to the ground, was his sleeping brother.

By now we had seen five lions in Gir, all of them males. I flippantly suggested to my group that this perhaps was the reason the Asiatic lion was in such trouble. From a quiet, hugely knowledgeable client came the reply, 'It brings a new meaning to gay pride.'

Soon our theory was disproved. We knew that ahead was a second kill but, reaching it, all we could see were the skull and backbone of what not long ago had been a chital. Near here, as we made for the park gate and our home at Lion Safari Camp, we came to a sudden standstill, churning up dust. Dozing right by the road was a lioness, one of the three pride females in the range of Ram and Shyam, the mother or aunt of the two-year-old males we had seen just before.

This great cat panted, droopy-eyed, in the heat, ten metres from us. Then she raised her head and began to look around before - to our amazement and delight - roaring, her belly pumping as she blasted her pride's possession of this forest patch across the whole of Gir.

In their beds the Sidis hear the lion's roar tonight; behind their stockades of brush and thorn the buffaloes and cattle hear it too; and we in our hearts hear it as our heads touch our pillows, wondering where she is in the night's darkness, this lioness who roared with us beside a forest road.

This land of Saurastra, lovingly called Sorath, which holds the old fort of Girnar; in this land men and women are handsome, tall and dark, and bravery is in their blood, because here the rivers' water is drunk first by the lion.

Gir folk song
transcribed and translated by Manisha Rajput

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               2
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                4
lion Panthera leo persica                          6

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