Gir National Park
Lions once roamed over much of Asia and Europe, and flourished in Gir National Park until indiscriminately slaughtered by humans. A disastrous famine further strained their survival prospects until in 1913 all that remained were about 20 individuals that had retreated to the Gir Forest. The last Asian lion in the wild outside Gir had been killed in 1884. Starving, the lions took to maneating, and might be entirely gone but for the Nawab of Junagadh, whose domain included most of the Gir Forest. He deplored their plight, put their picture on a postage stamp, protected them vigorously, and they began to recover. By 1985, there were 239 and they have continued gradually to increase, to more than 300 by one recent count.
With the lions, a whole wild ecosystem has thrived in this now-protected sanctuary of 545 square miles (1,412 km2) of river-interlaced forest and grassland with a core national park area.
Leopards (sometimes called panthers here) also have been increasing as complementary predators— the lions hunting in family groups able to take on larger prey like the sambar, largest Asian deer, while the agile leopards, usually solo, successfully go after fleet-footed yearlings and hares as well as peafowl, monkeys, and arboreal species unavailable to more earthbound lions. Both go after abundant grazing herds of chital or spotted deer (more than 10,000 in a recent census), young sambar, nilgai, and some four-horned antelopes, and chinkara or Indian gazelles.
Smaller predators like jackals, wild cats, and striped hyenas get the leavings, or like jungle cats or rare desert and rusty spotted cats, go after smaller prey themselves.
More than 2,000 wild boars root about the forest floor. Langur monkeys chatter in spectacular “flame of the forest” trees. Marsh crocodiles bask on lake banks behind Kamaleshwar dam, the largest population of “muggers” anywhere in India.
Gir’s rich birdlife—more than 300 species—includes paradise flycatchers, black-headed cuckoo shrikes, pied woodpeckers, crested serpent eagles, painted sandgrouse, white-necked storks.
Asiatic lions have thicker coats and darker, slightly smaller manes than their African cousins but like them are highly familial. A small part of their prey base is cattle grazed here by Maldhari herders, a continuing problem along with worry that an epidemic could drastically reduce this isolated, concentrated population. Attempts to start new groups elsewhere have not, at least until recently, been successful.
Best times are December–March.
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