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Indian wildlife safari - The last Asiatic Lions on the Planet

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India wildlife safari – walking with the Lions of Gir

It was February 1997 and I had just spent 1 month on a tiger safari in India. Visiting Ranthambhore national park, I had been lucky enough to see my first wild tiger; but I had 2 months remaining in India and I was keen to explore other Indian Wildlife Sanctuaries. A chance conversation with an Indian wildlife photographer staying at my hotel led me to an overnight train journey south west to the state of Gujarat and a stay at the little visited Sasan Gir wildlife sanctuary.

I love my wildlife documentaries and have a strong interest in viewing iconic species all around the world, but I can truly say that I had no idea that India had a population of wild lions. Not just any old lions, but the last remaining Asiatic Lions in the world. At one time these lions had ranged as far north as Turkey and Iran. Now all that remained was a single population of around 300 lions in the far south of Gujarat state. What a privilege to be invited down to see such a highly endangered big cat and to try and understand a little more about its status and conservation status.

During my backpacking trip I nearly always travelled by train to save costs and then from the station to the hotel or wildlife lodges using shared moto or cycle rickshaws. On arriving at Valadar station, I was delighted to discover a really unique motorcycle rickshaw; which combined Enfield type motorbikes with a small covered passenger canopy behind. We roared off from the station and after an hour on the open roads arrived at the simple government run accommodation located not far from the park entrance to Sasan Gir lion sanctuary. My Indian photography friends were already installed and we enjoyed a simple vegetarian meal together before planning our jeep safaris for the following two days.

One of the delights of a tiger safari in India during the winter (or in this case a lion safari) is the coldness and freshness of the air as you climb into the jeep in the morning. With a few biscuits and Indian chai to fortify you, you appreciate the warm blankets over your legs to keep some of your heat from escaping; due to the wind chill from the moving jeep. The anticipation as you pass through the park gates is intoxicating and any alarm call from deer or grey langurs is quickly followed in the hope of discovering one of the big cats hunting.

After investigating the alarm calls but finding no sign of either lions or leopards we changed direction and I was rather shocked to find 2 or 3 park guards (armed only with long wooden sticks) walking along the forest trails. They called to our driver and after stopping there followed a typically passionate conversation in Hindi, which I imagined was the latest news about lion sighting in the area. What I did not expect is my friends in the jeep to turn around and say quite calmly that we were getting out of the jeep to walk to two male lions who were deeper in the forest and not accessible by jeep. Almost too shocked (and excited) to respond, I simply nodded and joined them outside the vehicle.

Asiatic Lions are so well camouflaged due to their light brown coats and the very dry deciduous forest they call home. So although you might think 300+ lions would have been easy to spot, it actually is more challenging than it appears – obviously the park roads only cover a limited area of the park. We walked slowly in single file with a park guard at the front and behind and initially we approached to about 100M. The two young male lions were sitting together looking relaxed at the base of a teak tree and stared at us nonchalantly. My Indian friends set up their huge lenses on tripods and fired away at their ‘targets’ and I watched with fascination and increasing confidence that these lions were of the friendly variety.

Happy with their photos we decided to walk back to the vehicle and collected our gear, but it seems the lions were not ready to see us go! As soon as we turned our backs they got up and starting to follow us; almost like they were stalking us. Had our movement initiated a hunting response in them; or were they just curious about these human intruders? Either way, it made the walk back to the jeep much more interesting and kept our senses primed until we reached the ‘safety’ of the vehicle.

Quite rightly this practice was soon after banned in Sasan Gir, although I did have a wry smile on my face last year, when a famous Indian Cricketer was reprimanded for taking a ‘selfie’ of himself and his wife with the lions as part of an unscheduled ‘walk with the lions’. As is often the case in India, people from a privileged background can ‘buy’ any type of wildlife experience.

So if you are looking for a change for the very popular tiger safari in India, why not visit the fascinating state of Gujarat and enjoy a lion safari at Sasan Gir.

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