Anita Rao-Kashi is memerised with the king of the jungle trotting casually in the forest of Gir.
It wasn’t yet dawn and in that hazy early morning light, much before sunrise, everything seemed dramatic. As the jeep bumped and trundled along the mud path inside Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Southern Gujarat, kicking up a sheet of dust in its wake, the trees on either side were a dark curtain behind which anything could be lurking. Or at least, it was fun to imagine so. It was also bitingly cold and comforting to huddle into thick jackets and beanies. But as the sun rose, sunrays filtered through the leaves and lit up everything in a golden hue. The forest also came alive and a variety of bird calls and jungle sounds could be heard. It was a unique symphony.
The only home to the protected Asiatic lions, Gir National Park or Sasan Gir as it also known, sprawled over 1400 sqkm. It was once the hunting grounds of the royalty of Junagadh and the lions were hunted for trophy. But faced with an alarming decimation of the lion population, the Nawab of Junagadh was quick to realise the necessity of conservation and took steps as early as the 1900s. It was declared a protected area and has enjoyed that status ever since. Inherently, Gir enjoys remarkable biodiversity of flora; as for fauna, apart from the lions, it is home to leopards, hyenas, jackals, nilgai, sambar, black bucks, chitals, crocodiles, porcupines, mongoose and at least 300 species of birds including vultures and many types of eagles.
But for me, it was the lions that mattered. I was told there were nearly 500 lions in the park and was excited to catch my very first glimpse of a lion in the wild. As we slowly drove along the rutted path, bumping and jostling, the forest enveloped us in its serenity. We saw spotted deer grazing by the path, ears alert for any movement; if they felt even the least bit threatened, they slunk away into the undergrowth or gracefully leaped behind bushes.
We moved on slowly, deeper into the forest, listening to animal calls and happily chirping birds. Along the way we encountered a couple of playful grey langurs swinging from tree to tree, colourful peacocks which darted into the underbrush, mynahs, bulbuls and drongos. As the sun rose further into the sky, everything was clear and bright and the chill vanished.
With eyes peeled we trundled along the jungle paths, and I was beginning to feel despondent. The forest was beautiful and there were many creatures we chanced upon, but the lion had stubbornly stayed away. However, suddenly the guide’s walkie-talkie cackled and he was quietly informed of a sighting. Excitement ratcheted several notches as the jeep raced along, kicking up a thick curtain of dust behind. As we rounded a bend in the path, there in front of us were two males, strutting out from behind a row of trees. The two seemed to uncannily blend in with the ground and the dried vegetation. And yet, there was no way to miss them.
The scene was certainly riveting, electrifying even. The two walked around, at a safe distance from us. They stared for a few moments and then gracefully settled down, with their backs to us, tails swishing occasionally. Both of them were fabulous specimen of their ilk; majestic, lithe and full of rippling muscles, golden brown with slightly darker but luxurious manes and glorious symmetry. For a moment, I was reminded of Aslan, the main character in CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. I half expected one of them to start talking!
All around me, except for a few excited murmurs from a couple of other jeeps and the incessant clicking of cameras, there was absolute stillness. No breeze blew and nothing stirred; no creature or bird made a sound. All the clichés of the lion being the king of the forest seemed to come true and the two appeared to hold sway over everything. A couple of times, one of them turned around and looked straight at us. His eyes were luminous, bright and piercing, and the gaze was compelling, hypnotizing even.
I could have stood there and gazed at the magnificent creatures forever, but they must have got bored of the scenery. Both got up and wandered around for a few seconds, all regal and elegant in their gait, and then quietly vanished behind the foliage. The forest provided the perfect camouflage and a few seconds later, it was as if the pair had been a figment of my imagination.
Reluctantly, the jeep turned away and we wandered around the jungle for some more time. But nothing else held interest any more after what we had just seen. As the sun got harsher, the safari wound down. I had expected it to be anti-climactic but the image of the two beasts were etched in my mind and stayed with me for a long time after I had left the jungle behind. As images go, that was a pretty hard one to beat.
Gir National Park is in Junagadh district of Gujarat.
How to reach: Rajkot is the nearest airport and is located 180 km to the North of Gir.