WHERE THE Mighty Lions Roar

The Sasan-Gir sanctuary is the only natural habitat in the world, outside Africa, of the Asiatic lion; the only place where you can see them roaming free in the wild. From the mighty lions to a large number of deer and antelopes, birds and flora, a trip to Gir is a ‘must-do’ this winter…

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THE beauty of the Gir cannot be merely described in words. It’s a feeling of being amidst the majestic, of witnessing the strength of the Asiatic Lions found there living here amidst the mesmerizing beauty of the forest promises to take one’s breath away. The Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as Sasan-Gir is considered one of the most important protected natural areas in Asia due to the presence of the rare animals and birds found living there.

Locally called sher or sinh, the Asiatic lion is over two and a half meters long, weighs 115 to 200 kg, and can run short distances at 65 km/h to chase down the sambar, chital, nilgai, and chinkara that are its preferred prey. However, when not hungry, it will never attack an animal; after a lion makes a kill, it will gorge itself on up to 75 kg of meat, and then not worry about eating for a few days, so it is not unusual to see a well-fed lion lounging calmly beside a herd of grazing deer. The lions prefer open scrub and deciduous forest areas, and are very bold.

The Gir Forest is the only place in the world outside of Africa where wild lions can be found. However, the beauty of Gir does not just lie in the magnificent beasts that roam in it but also a multitude of other animals and birds found there. Along with the famous lions, who number around 350, the park is also home to four other wild cats. There are around 300 leopards, though they are nocturnal and thus harder to spot. Of the three smaller wildcats, the jungle cat is the most widespread, and lives in deciduous scrub and riverine areas.

The mysterious desert cat is almost never seen. The rusty spotted cat, previously thought to only live in the Dangs of Southeast Gujarat, has only recently been found in Gir.

This varied vegetation provides a conducive habitat for deer and antelope. The most-sighted animal in the park, the chital, or Indian spotted deer, inhabits the dry and mixed deciduous forest, with a population of over 32,000. The more reclusive sambar, the largest of the Indian deer species, weighing 300-500 kg, lives in the wetter western part of the park. Both the sambar and the chausingha, the world’s only 4-horned antelope (chau= four, singha= horns), are very dependent on water, and are rarely found far from a water source. Another one-of-a-kind is the chinkara, the only gazelle in the world with horns in both males and females. The fastest of the Indian antelopes, the blackbuck, also lives in Gir.

Gir is home to over 300 species of birds, many of which can be seen yearround, from the Malabar whistling thrush to the Paradise flycatcher, from the crested serpent eagle to the king vulture, from pelicans to painted storks.

The top and middle canopies of the dry, mixed and riverine decidous forests are home to troops of hanuman langur monkeys. The striped hyena is usually seen scavenging alone in the grasslands and scrub forest, far more solitary than the African hyena. Wild boars rooting into the ground for tuber provide aeration of the soil. You may also spot smaller mammals like pangolins, pale hedgehogs, Indian hares, or grey musk shrews. The ratel or honey badger is renowned for its snake-killing exploits while the ruddy mongoose also makes his presence felt as an ardent snake killer.

Snakes found at Gir include the common krait, Russell’s viper, and the saw-scaled viper. The Kamaleshwar reservoir now houses the largest population of marsh crocodiles in the country. Other reptiles include the soft-shelled turtle, star tortoise, Indian rock python and monitor lizard (which grows to over 1.5 m long.)

The Gir forest area, which covered over 3000 square km in 1880, was reduced to just over 2500 square km by the mid-20th century, and only 1400 square km today. Of that, a mere 258 square km make up the National Park itself.

BEST TIME TO VISIT:
Between April to June, it can be very hot due to tropical heat. From November to early February, the weather is pretty cool, and this is the most pleasant season to visit. However during end of December it may feel chilly.

HOW TO GET THERE:
BY AIR:
The closest airport with commercial service is in Rajkot, which has regular flights from both Mumbai and Delhi. From Rajkot, it is about 160 kms to Gir.

BY TRAIN:
There are regular trains to Junagadh (65 kms from Gir) and Veraval (45 kms from Gir) from other parts of India, notably Rajkot and Ahmedabad.

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