The forest is enveloped in an eerie silence…deep within this void lurks suspense, one that keeps you aware and alert. A thick, luxuriant carpet of dry teak leaves adorns the forest floor – a challenge for those who wish to walk quietly, it is a treat for the eyes of the admirers of beauty – in the form of patterns and textures.
It is February – the forest is witnessing a transition from winter to spring. Celebrating this change with full indulgence are the blooming trees of Palash (flame of the forest) and Semal (silk cotton).
River Shingavda, meanders through it like a playful teenager.Originating from this forest, carving her way through age-old, volcanic rocks and flanked by lush gallery forests, she is a synonym of beauty. We are in the heart of the forest that is the last home of the Asiatic lion – the Gir.
Accompanied by ‘Abba’, as he is fondly called by the young forest guards, we literally are walking down the memory lane in the Gir forest. Taj Mohammed Daus Mohammed (his real name) belongs to the Makrani community known for being excellent lion trackers, but also maligned for their unlawful activities in the forest. His grandfather worked for the erstwhile Nawab of Junagadh about whom the man had many memories including the eight-and-a-half rupee salary that he drew in those ‘good-old’ days. Abba has been serving at Dabhala post in the Jamwala range of Gir forest for nearly thirty years and said with a wink and grin “I generally say I’m 50 when asked about my age!”
As we walk the wilderness of Gir with him, he recounts many tales of the bygone era. “A particular Diwan saheb of the Nawab of Junagadh advised him to keep our community – the makranis out of the important jobs and gave us only police or forest jobs and that too lower ranks only. My grandfather and father wore joker-like shorts in those days!” Even this is more like a neutral observation that he shares; nothing inside him showing any negative attitude for the person that bestowed this favour upon his community! While taking us along the river for a good four kilometers, he shows various animal signs including antler rubbings of sambar and chital; diggings of pangolin – the strange, ant-eating denizen that’s seldom seen; lion pugmarks and leopard scrapes – all with the curiosity and interest of a young child. We stop for rest and find ourselves chatting again. Perched atop a rock ledge that overlooks a vast stretch of the Shingavda river, Abba softly murmurs “can’t believe this…it was all so different some thirty years back. Now it’s such a good forest…” Nibbling on the biscuits that we have taken out during this short rest, he talks with humility and simplicity seldom encountered today. Ears busy, I let my eyes roam…gazing at the river once haunted by hundreds of buffaloes of the maldhari herdsmen belonging to the Rabari, Charan, Ahir and Bharwad communities. It was a time when Gir teemed with their nesses – hutments surrounded by thick and broad hedges consisting of thorny branches of Zizyphus and Acacia.
We resume our walk, leaving the tangled vegetation behind, and continue further arriving at a place called pithdi-belan – the confluence of the Shingavda and Ardak rivers. Water is crystal clear with various shades of blue and green. Abba drinks several handfuls of water and in the process, finds a lion pugmark on a sand bar. A big male has walked past here early in the morning. He is known to them, claims the other, young guard. He shows little trace of water that remained in the tracks hinting at the lion having walked not long ago.
We are soon following the steps of the king! Here, the banks are overgrown with reeds of Phragmites karka and Typha angustata. There are occasional stands of Tamarix and young jamun (Syzygium cumini) trees too. One needs to be careful to avoid stepping on a hungry crocodile! We cross the river several times as water is still high and the dam downstream is ‘full’. A pair of red-wattled lapwings warns every creature of our arrival. We fail to trace the lion after intensive efforts in treacherously dense vegetation and tricky terrain. The search is finally abandoned, though reluctantly. The sparkling sand bars along the river and the small islands in its pools are a tell-tale sign of the protection and peace that prevail in this part of Gir. No tourists or other human activity except occasional patrolling by the forest staff and the routine operations of fire prevention and wildlife census. The birds are confiding and so are the beasts, including the magnificent sambar.
We spot a hind and a fawn – looking directly at us, but not with disdain, or so I think. I relax on a roundish sand bar at the confluence and recollect visiting this place during my study of the Indian peafowl in 1992-93. It is a nostalgic moment and I spontaneously think of the good times and able field assistants who taught me many a things about the flora and fauna of Gir during the short period that I spent. Leaving pithdi-belan, I reminisce further on the days spent in Gir, which had carved a permanent niche for this lion-forest in my heart. That’s what has probably brought me back here, this time with a different purpose – to assess the conservation status of the Asiatic Lion. We’ve walked at a leisurely pace along the river for about an hour and a half, now reaching a place called pola paana (hollow rocks). This is our destination for lunch. Settling atop a sandy mound protected by the dense shade of a karamda (Carissa carandus) bush, I stretch out.
The river is quieter and wider here. Signs of Marsh Crocodile or Mugger are to be seen all around. A woolly-necked stork literally hangs in air for a while before landing as if it is well aware of the danger lurking beneath the calm waters. A pied kingfisher displays its fishing skills, first hovering and then swooping like a falling stone…splosh…to emerge with a fish in its sharp, long beak. Having secured food and content, it flies off. Our food also arrives in the meanwhile from the nearby Dabhala chowki. While food is being served in our plates, the alarm calls of langur and chital from the opposite bank draw our attention. Seems like the efforts of a hungry leopard to secure some food. In Gir, leopards are surprisingly active during the day, possibly a strategy to temporally avoid lions which are invariably stretched out under shade by this time of the day. A siesta is welcome for us too after lunch. As I stretch out again, my eyes naturally take to sky. Three Black Storks are mulling over a descent on the river, but continue circling high up over our heads. These migrants from far off Russian wetlands also have an immature individual among them, possibly last year’s chick accompanying the parents for the first time to this vast forest of the lion. On the other bank, the alarm calls continue. We scan with our binoculars, lazy to get up, but optimistic and excited; nothing surfaces in our view. I don’t remember when I doze off, leaving aside the general alertness of a vulnerable human being in a forest with large predators and completely ignoring the persistent alarm calls of chital on the opposite bank.
Abba is up before us and ready to go. His smile is a bigger greeting than any words can convey. We start walking towards the Shingavda reservoir – our final destination for the day. This is the fourth day of our walk across Gir forest. So far, everything seems in perfect order. The afternoon walk is a bit tough as temperature soars a little above 35 degrees and the sound of walking over teak leaves makes sure we are deprived of any decent wildlife sighting. Passing by the old, abandoned ness sites, I kind of feel strange. It is as if the contrasting emotions of loss and gain are still lingering. I say ‘loss’ because a thriving culture of pastoralists who lived and died among the prides of lions was permanently lost from the area as the National Park was freed of ‘all’ its human elements. ‘Gain’ because this change marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Gir. Recovery of the habitat was promptly followed by an increase in the number of wild ungulate prey. Many believe that this change has had a negative effect on the use of this area by the lions. We do not see that. In most areas of what is now the Gir National Park (or Core Zone), including the route that we have taken today, we encounter scats, pugmarks and other signs of lions. The high number of sightings and signs of prey betray the cause of this.
Round-the-year availability of water in Shingavda, Dhatardi, Bhuvatirth and Ardak rivers ensures good habitat quality. It seems that what was provided by the buffaloes and cattle of the maldharis decades ago is now available in the form of wild prey such as nilgai and sambar. There’s also a mention of the increasing denseness of the habitat making it difficult for the lions to hunt, but scientific evidence and observations show that neither the whole of National Park is such forest, nor is hunting made difficult for this large cat that stalks and surprises its quarry at close quarters. A thorough study of lion hunts/kills made by Ravi Chellam has thrown more light on this, and for now, the dominating presence of lions in this region is evidence enough of his observations. The forest everywhere is showing signs of activity and animal presence. There is a fair regeneration of food plants. Though walking yields fewer sightings compared to a drive, we are rewarded with many animal signs. These include bark chewing, antler rubbing, shed antlers, and even kills. We reach Dabhala check-post and rest for a few minutes before tea arrives. Sipping tea from steel saucers; the occupants of the forest staff quarters make typical, loud sounds, as people in this part often do. The walk is still on, but we relieve Abba from here. He greets us and bids goodbye, touching his heart.
As we continue further, new stories unfold as it is the young guard accompanying us – Dilipbhai’s turn now. Our jeep arrives in a short while and takes us to the Shingavda dam. The drive seems very fast and a rather shallow experience compared to the walk. The calm waters of Shigavda river spread far and wide guarded by the lengthening shadows of the Acacia trees.
Here is a near-perfect union of nature’s gift – water and man’s technology – a dam. Or, is it? Much of the water that is received through the forested hills of Gir National Park ends up in the sugarcane fields of Kodinar taluka through several dams located within and on the periphery of the Gir Lion Sanctuary and National Park. People living in this part around Gir are surely not oblivious of this fact, but they possibly aren’t aware that they are in essence consuming the lion’s share! Much to my amazement this ecological foot-print also continues towards my own home, where each cup of morning tea probably has a bit of Gir in it!!
As I marvel at this connection that I share with the Asiatic lion, the sun is on its way to enlighten the other side of the globe.
A lion roars in the distance reminding me that the forest now belongs to its rightful owner…