A FLING WITH GUJARAT–Ahmedabad-Gir-Veraval–PART II

SASAN GIRLions and birds galore with the right ‘setting’

My previous post on Gir attempts to clear the mystery of accessing the town of Sasan Gir, finding food and living quarters there and booking safaris for the sanctuary. This one is about the sanctuary itself. Part I of our Gujarat journey included Ahmedabad based experiences and Part III includes a visit to Veraval, a temple town about an hour’s drive from Gir.

Density and sightings of wild life

Our 4 safaris over 2 days into the Gir Sanctuary showed us 1 or 2 lions on each drive, and some spotted deer, langurs, fewer blue bulls, sambars and, fewer still, jackals. Kanha or Bandhavgarh sanctuaries show many more deer or langurs but then it was lions and birds we were seeking and we saw them on each safari. I’d heard from a member on the delhibird mailing list that Route 2 had showed them their 2 lions, and we did get that route for the first safari, but it didn’t seem that people were at liberty to ask for a specific route and seeing it being considered. Each of the 7 safari routes was allowed upto 30 vehicles in a time slot, and the guy behind the booking window decided who went where. However, a special request from a guide or a driver helped push one’s case so it made sense to stay with a good driver or guide if one’s first safari had helped connect with one.

Our first safari showed us a pair of male lions from a distance of about 100 meters.

The first 2 lions

The animals looked bored and sleepy. They didn’t seem ruffled or stop yawning even when one of the 2 forest trackers in the vicinity took a jeep-bound tourist’s point-and-shoot camera as close as just a few feet away to get a clear shot. We’re still excited to see our first lions in the wild though.

A point on forest trackers: we saw at least 2 uniformed trackers on each route; either a pair of them would be on a motorbike or a pair would in any case remain on the ground between the jeeps and the lions when latter were spotted—that’s right, on the ground, with just a big bamboo stick in hand. When encountered on the route, guides would consult trackers about the location of lions and, like in other sanctuaries, jeep drivers kept checking with each other on sighting possibilities as they drove past.

Among birds, Route 2 showed us Indian Pittas and Asian Paradise Flycatchers in good numbers (around 10 or so); a pair of Small Minivets, a Eurasian Thick-knee, two Crested Serpent Eagles, some Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, an Oriental Honey Buzzard; and some common birds like Asian Koel, Coucal Pheasant, Long-tailed Shrike, White-throated Kingfisher, Indian Robin and Brahminy Myna. Peafowl and Red-vented Bulbuls were all over. Most Asian Paradise Flycatcher males were roufous but there was at least one male in white plumage too.

Tickell's Blue FlycatcherEurasian Thick-kneeCrested Serpent EagleIndian Nightjar

For the evening safari, our driver had helped us find a guide whose knowledge of birds was considered to be good so we were in better hands from then on. His suggested Route 3 was known to be bountiful for bird seekers and our bird tally indeed went up. Other than those seen earlier, the new birds noticed were Chestnut Shouldered Petronias, Spotted Doves, Common Woodshrikes, Common Ioras, one each of Indian Nightjar, Spotted Owlet and Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, and a pair of awe-inspiring Mottled Owlets. This route had a large lake (or river?) that showed a few Indian River Terns, Pond Herons, Woolley Necked Storks, Cormorants and Black Ibises. Black-headed Ibises were also seen elsewhere on the route.

What was least expected was the sighting

The king marking his territory

of a lone male lion who looked like a war hero with a spunk in his movements! It was almost towards the end of our 3-hour drive on the route that this lion sprang up on the right side of the drivable track and exhibited the surety of a jungle king by marching along the main road for about a km, and by contentedly marking trees on both sides of the road. In between, he surprised us altogether by going a few meters inside the forest and sitting down in one of the classic lion poses to allow us to click him frenetically. My best moments at that time were seeing the lion saunter around coolly—not sitting some place, guarded by trackers–and watching Kabir excitedly standing up in the open jeep, pleading for control of the camera to act in some manner decisive in response to the lion’s performance!  There were only 2 jeeps to witness this display and no trackers around so it was quite a hair-raising experience.

A classic lion pose

We’re able to get Route 3 the next morning to have a clearer and longer sighting of the Mottled Owl pair. We managed that on the way out. This ride also showed Asian Paradise Flycatchers and Indian Pittas periodically. Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers too showed up frequently. Other than the usual Indian Peafowl and some Eurasian Thick-knees, we spotted a Short-toed Eagle and maybe just one Black Drongo. We heard from our Guide that this route shows many winter migrants during December-February.

Our lion sighting of this ride included a grown lioness with 2 cubs. We managed that sighting for close to 5 minutes and got some curious expressions from one of the cubs when a jeep had trouble turning around to leave the spot.

Lioness and cub2nd cub

Towards our exit, we heard about another lioness with 2 smaller cubs that others had got to see. Since one couldn’t get the same route on 2 safaris in a single day, we hoped to catch sightings of this other trio from another route the same evening. The new route 5 in the evening turned out to be largely lack-lustre. It had fewer birds and more browness to the vegetation. Again, only towards the end of our time in the sanctuary, we managed a distant sighting of a mother lioness with her 2 cubs smaller than the ones seen earlier. We weren’t allowed to get close as that part didn’t fall on our route but we could distinctly see 2 visibly small and playful cubs with a lioness who had walked out of the forest and sat down. The cubs were seen rolling on the ground and would have made a lovely sight from close.

The beginning of this route had shown us almost an apparition of a leopard quite a distance away, higher up in the thickets. I couldn’t tell if it was a lioness or a leopard—our guide insisted that it was latter, but I still wouldn’t claim to have seen a leopard on either of our safaris on this visit to Gir.

Right setting

Whether it was used by a Sinh Sadan cleaner, Sanctuary jeep driver or guide or even our driver from Ahmedabad, one word that repeatedly came our way in Gujarat was ‘setting.’ That if the ‘setting’—spoken with more emphasis than normally and sometimes with a wink–was right, many things could be achieved easily. If this ‘right setting’ wasn’t arranged by immortal powers in our favour, then one had to consciously strive for it to have a headway…either with arranging fresh linen in the Sinh Sadan room or getting a route with lions on it. The word ‘setting’ assumed a different connotation for us during this travel and amused us each time it was used by yet another person.

Gir Interpretation Zone in Devaliya

We’d meant to cover this 4 sq.km fenced off zone, some 12 km away from the Sanctuary, to see lions and other animals of Gir in somewhat of free space but were instead advised to go on our 4th Sanctuary safari to look for a lioness with small cubs. The next day would have been a free day for us to go to Devaliya but it was also Wednesday, the day for the Interpretation zone to be closed to visitors. We learnt that the ride through Devaliya was allowed only in a Forest Range bus that didn’t make for a clear sighting or photographing of animals so we gave the place a miss and went looking for lions in the wild instead. No regrets on that count.

Photos included in the post were taken by Kishore Bhargava

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