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20 February 2015 / leggypeggy

Gir National Park—the last refuge for the Asiatic lion

Asiatic lion, female

So close I could have stroked her. Notice the scars on her nose

People often assume that Africa and zoos are the only places to see lions, but they’re wrong. Asiatic lions, which used to roam widely throughout Asia, are still kings of the jungle in a small part of Gujarat in western India.

According to the last census in 2010, Gir National Park has a population 411 of these lions. The park’s 2015 census, scheduled to take place in early May and using GPS technology, will determine whether the numbers are up or down. I’m expecting them to be up. They went from 359 to 411 in the five years prior to 2010.

As of this week, I was lucky enough to see not just one, but nine of these magnificent cats. Over three separate game drives (more about them below), we saw two females with a cub (thought to be female), then a mum with two male cubs, then a lone male and finally a courting/mating couple.

Asiatic lions

Two females and a cub

But we didn’t just see them. The first group—the two females and the cub—walked beside us. I was told to sit up straight and not hang my head out the side the Gypsy (what the vehicles are called). If my arms were a bit longer and I was a bit more daring, I could have stroked them.

The mating pair were lounging around when we were there, but we were told by a guide who went by after us, that they’d become a bit frisky.

Seeing nine was a huge bonus. According to Wikipedia, Iran’s last pride of Asiatic lions (a female and four cubs) were cornered and shot in 1963. The male had been shot earlier. No sightings have been made since then.

Asiatic lion cub

A cub keeps ‘her’ distance from us

Back in the early 1900s and during a severe drought, there were only about a dozen lions left in Gir’s teak forest. The then Nawab (Muslim ruler) of Junagadh provided enough protection for the animals that the numbers recovered a bit between 1904–11.

But the slaughter resumed in 1911 after the Nawab died and, by 1913 the numbers were estimated at 20. The British Administration implemented shooting restrictions and, by 1936, the count was up to 287.

Today most of the lions roam across 545 square miles of Gir sanctuary (that encompass the 100 square miles of actual park). For the most part, they co-exist fairly peacefully with the Maldhari—8400 live in the park. These nomads raise livestock and while their settlements have caused some problems for the lions, they have also provided the beasts with some protection.

Asiatic lion, male, Gir

Licking his chops and remembering lunch

The 2010 census shows that about a quarter of the lions live outside the sanctuary. The state of Madhya Pradesh has made a successful court application to have some animals moved to their Kuno sanctuary, but this has not yet happened.

I can understand Gujarat’s desire to remain the lions’ last host—what a great tourist drawcard—but they are not thinking ahead. What if disease or fire sweeps through the Gir lions? In 1994, an epidemic of canine distemper hit Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and killed about 1000 African lions.

Asiatic lions, mating pair

The mating pair lounging around

Compliments and complaints about the game drives

We had four game drives through the Gir forests. We were only supposed to have two, but the van we are travelling in needed new brake shoes so we stayed in the area for an extra day. Luckily we were able to squeeze in two more drives.

Getting a drive spot is a real production. There are only three drives per day—starting at 6:30am, 9:30am and 3:30pm—and 30 vehicles allowed per drive. Fifteen vehicles are allocated online, several months in advance.

If you want one of the last 15 slots, you have to queue from the middle of the night. Two days in a row, Gary and Shalak took up the challenge, heading to the queue at 4am and then 2am. The third day Gary and Anand went at 4am and we ‘only just’ got a place. Our campsite host had arranged a proxy to stand in the queue for us, or we never would have managed.

It was almost a pity that we did. This third drive was totally crappy because the guide was hopeless AND, even worse, the governor of the state showed up and all the good drive zones were set aside for his use only. But the fact that we were already at the park meant Gary and I hopped in the queue for the last afternoon drive. Our four-hour wait paid off and we got a slot and a great game zone.

Even though you have to wait a long time to get your placement, the system works fairly smoothly. There’s a bit of arguing in the queue, and a bit of attempted queue-jumping. But calm is restored when the guy with the handlebar moustache and spear turns up. Sorry I missed getting a pic of him.

Gir trackers

The trackers with their sticks—some protection

Lion-spotting is improved too by the work of fearless rangers. These fellows travel through the park on motorbikes and then tramp into the bush, carrying only a stick and sometimes a walkie-talkie, to urge lions out of their slumbering hideaways. I give them a lot of credit.

But here’s my big, big gripe about the organisation. Unlike every other park in India, the parks of Gujarat charge 600 rupees per person for a camera on every drive. That’s about US$10 and A$12 per drive. So I paid A$48 for camera usage alone over three days. Ridiculous and thievery in my opinion! Especially because you also pay to enter the park, pay for the use of the vehicle and pay for the guide. Thanks goodness Poor John doesn’t carry a camera.

On reflection, I don’t mind the camera charge for three of the drives, but I never even got my camera out of its bag on that third drive. So whatever you do, avoid zone 1 and try your best to get zone 2 (exiting from zone 6). Brilliant!

Asiatic lion, female

The courted female having a rest

A bit about the Asiatic lions

While these lions are slightly smaller than their African counterparts, they are equally majestic. It terms of size, they can still run to 420 pounds in weight and 3.5 feet in height at the shoulder.

Gestation period is about 100 days, and mothers nurse their young for about two months. The cubs aren’t completely weaned until they are three to four months old. Then the diet is meat only, which keeps the mum busy as a killing machine. Cubs starting hunting for themselves at about the age of one or one and a half. Their first attempts, usually involving small prey such as birds and mice, are quite clumsy.

Male cubs leave the pride at about age two, mostly to prevent in-breeding and establish their own territory (marking, roaring and fighting) at about the age of four. Every adult lion we saw had scars.

Our guide thought the mating male was five or six years old and might maintain his authority for another six or seven years—certainly not for 10.

And a bit of trivia: Asiatic lions were the beasts doing battle in the Coliseum in Rome.

P.S. Lions are carnivores so I wonder if they’d like the beef cheeks recipe on my cooking blog?

Asiatic lions, males

A couple of young boys

29 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Curious to the Max / Feb 20 2015 5:43 am

    You got MORE than $48 worth of outstanding photos. If my arms were longer I, too, feel like I could touch the lions.

    Like

  2. Derrick / Feb 20 2015 6:16 am

    I am jealous, I could say you were lucky to see these lions, but luck has a small part to play in seeing them, a lot has to do with the driver and the trackers, I would say the luck was to see 9 of them

    I can see their point in wanting to have a large pride, but just hope disease doesn’t get to them, but spreading them around other parks can only do the lions some good, even if its just genetic

    Were there just lions in the park ? (or are anything else going to be in another entry)?

    I hope I get to see their larger brothers/sisters when I rejoin my trip

    You have the same bug I do, paying an ever increase in entrances, some times 100 times more than the locals

    So even if you have a small camera, just for snaps you have to pay this camera tax?

    What about the bloke/woman who has the big Canon with all the lenses and add ons?

    I guess if anyone wants to keep these memories we have to pay this tax, eve though we know its a rip off (I hope it don’t catch on)

    They were pretty early kick offs, but looks like it was worth it

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 20 2015 12:57 pm

      Everyone pays for a camera over a certain size. Indians pay 100 rupees (A$2) and everyone else pays 600. However, if an Indian is riding with foreigners, they have to pay 600 too.

      And yes, there were lots of others animals in the park and I’ll give them some ‘show time’ too.

      Wishing you lots of good fortune for your travels in Africa.

      Like

  3. tailorsmeasure / Feb 20 2015 7:53 am

    Great photos!

    Like

  4. Jane / Feb 20 2015 8:57 am

    Wow, these are wonderful photos. I really had little knowledge of Asiatic lions. Thank you for this insight. I think I would gladly pay that amount for such an experience! 🙂

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 20 2015 12:53 pm

      Thanks so much, Jane. I knew there were Asiatic lions, but never knew much about them until now.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mike / Feb 20 2015 1:47 pm

    Pretty cool! The lions were beautiful. Good pics, Peggy!!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 20 2015 3:10 pm

      Thanks Mike. The experience was amazing. Still reeling!

      Like

  6. Midwestern Plant Girl / Feb 20 2015 10:33 pm

    What a great visit! Thanks for sharing the wonderful captures. I can understand a sanctuary trying to drum up some money. I’m only guessing, but they probably don’t get much $$ from the gov. I can’t wait to see the other animals! 🐒🐘🐯

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 21 2015 1:06 am

      I don’t mind if all the money I paid goes back into the park. I sure hope it doesn’t go straight into government coffers. Other animals coming soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Laurie / Feb 21 2015 3:52 am

    Thank you. Your pictures made me feel as if I was there with you. Very much enjoyed!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 21 2015 4:03 am

      You are most welcome. Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m hoping to post more pictures soon of Gir National Park.

      Like

  8. Sy S. / Feb 21 2015 5:39 am

    Hello LeggyPeggy,

    I never knew you are such a great “Sharp Shooter” getting so many good photos of Lions.
    You have been on many adventures to wildlife parks and hoping to see some rare animals… and this time you were successful big time… and seeing 9 magnificent Lions! And getting many close up shots…. amazing! ! ! I would be annoyed as well to have to pay extra just to carry a camera along… but then again, taking the time, effort and expense to get to GIR National Park in India and paying some additional money is worth the expense.

    Further, I had seen by Googling (or your past photos), there is often five or so small Gypsy/vans with people in them… and unbelievable that they are open. With the Lions you did see, I would be scared that several Lions were so close to the Gypsy/van. Also, with the “trackers”(men and sticks) being able to go into the bush and get the Lions to come out…. I wonder if that Lion group are fed by humans or the Maldhari nomads have domesticated them to some extent (for better wording) ?. BTW, never realized that there are Lions in India…

    Ok great post, send other wild animal photos… and/or a few “sound bites” of Lions roaring!

    SyS.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 25 2015 7:09 pm

      The trackers do very well with the lions in India. But tigers are different. No trackers for tigers—they eat people!

      And the fact the Gypsies are open-air really don’t cause any concern. I certainly haven’t been afraid.

      Like

  9. wineandhistory / Mar 1 2015 4:44 pm

    Wow. What beautiful animals! It is nice that they are protected, but I agree with your concern about having them all so concentrated. Especially since populations that have such a history of inbreeding, like those lions, are much more susceptible to disease. I would love to visit there some day.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Mar 4 2015 12:26 am

      Oh, I hope you make it there one day. It’s so fascinating. Luckily inbreeding isn’t much of a problem. The lions live in defined prides, but the young males are kicked out about age two to avoid inbreeding.

      Like

  10. afterthelasttime / Jun 15 2015 11:30 pm

    Great photos of these wonderful cats, Peggy! Their majestic presence makes one wonder how man can keep taking away what’s been so abundantly provided to all of us.
    Seems like a better management system of visitors vs. the number of treks into the park needs better management, imagine going all that way only to learn of the middle of the night ticketing line possibly ruining your chances of even a chance to see a lion in the wild let alone the park. Their current practice may drive away more real interested visitors than attract along with caring about the lions plight!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Jun 15 2015 11:47 pm

      You’re absolutely right. Park management needs an overhaul. Still I cherish the time we had there.

      Like

  11. tthetraveler / Oct 15 2015 9:52 pm

    You were one of the lucky ones who gt to see the lions upfront.

    Like

  12. voulaah / Feb 25 2016 8:58 pm

    ouh là là I adore to see these animals

    Like

  13. Ray / Feb 27 2016 4:47 pm

    If the camera “fees” go back towards maintaining Gir National Park and protecting the Asiatic lion population here so it can continue to grow and thrive, then at least it is somewhat worth it. Otherwise, it does sound like a ripoff charging tourists who want to take photos of these majestic beasts!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 27 2016 7:44 pm

      All the parks in Gujarat charged me a fee to use the camera and, like you, I hope the money goes to supporting the parks.

      Like

Trackbacks

  1. Gir National Park—lions and much, much more | Where to next?
  2. Trailing tigers in Pench National Park | Where to next?
  3. Good news from Pench and sad news from Gir | Where to next?

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