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A Wondering Place Sasan Gir India

Scraggly, brown, dry and thorny, is what Gir looks like. It is the last bastion of the Asiatic lion, is a beautiful but harsh, teak dominated habitat in the Junagadh district in Kathiawar, Gujarat. Far from the stereotypical vision most people have of forests in the tropics, Gir is anything but lush. It is nevertheless, one of India's most precious and vital biodiversity vaults. A semi-arid wilderness emblazoned by rust, beige and the occasional scarlet, when the flame of the forest and silk cotton trees are in bloom, Gir brings to mind visions of distant Africa, despite the fact that it lacks the extensive grasslands of the Masai Mara. Yet, something in these ecological circumstances proved to be just what the lions needed, for it is only here, in relatively small fragments of forests, supported by 'poor quality' teak, that one of the world's rarest large cats survive.

Once distributed across Asia Minor and Arabia, lions colonised India centuries ago. In the north they roamed as far as Saharanpur, Moradabad and Ludhiana, to the east in Bihar and south to the Narmada valley. But habitat destruction and vigorous hunting almost wiped the species off the face of the earth. The last lion to be killed in Gujarat was in 1870, but in Central India, where they were unprotected, they were hunted till 1884. Forced into this tiny, forested western corner of the country, around 300 lions now share their fragile home with villagers, cattle and India's robust industrial ambitions.


Located in southwest Saurashtra, the Gir forest extends across an area of 1,412 sq kms and is clothed by a combination of grassland, scrub and forests of teak that grow on lateritic soils. An aerial view reveals low undulating hills rising from a height of 225 to 648 m, almost fully encircled by agricultural fields. Naturalists and historians point out that what is left in Gir today, is the last remnant of native landscape within the Saurashtra peninsula.

As many as seven significant rivers pass through Gir: the Hiran, Saraswati, Datardi, Shingoda, Machhundri, Ghodavadi and Raval. The water from these rivers is key to the survival of the lions. This supply is also invariably the last source available to downstream human communities when their wells and streams run dry just prior to the arrival of the next life-giving rains.

Olden Times (History)

The lion has been venerated for millennia. More than 2,000 years ago Ashoka inscribed his edicts on pillars graced by the lion capital at Sarnath. Despite the fact that the tiger has replaced the lion as India's national animal, the lion remains the emblem of the Republic. The lion was always hunted, even in the days of the Moghuls. But when the British colonised the subcontinent, they brought with them sophisticated weapons, which, when combined with their limitless thirst for shikar, almost spelled doom for the species. Writing in 1949 M A Wynter-Blyth, a famous naturalist who had been asked by the Bombay Natural History Society to survey the lions, said:

"The lion is much bolder, more fearless of man and less cunning than the tiger and so is much more easily shot. This explains the disappearance of the noble animals from all its other Indian haunts whilst the tiger manages to maintain its numbers."

He was dead right. By 1893 estimates suggest that there were no more than 18 lions left. It is from this tiny pool that all the Asiatic lions alive today emerged. At the turn of the century, there was a terrible drought and the Asiatic lions took a beating.

Around that time, the Nawabs of the relatively small state of Junagadh came to the rescue of the cats. Aware that the lion was facing certain extinction, they stopped all shooting in the area long before India achieved Independence. As long ago as 1929, Nawab Sir Mahabat Khanji of Junagadh released a series of Gir lion postage stamps making the lion the first animal to be thus represented in Indian philately.

After years of sliding inexorably towards extinction, luck finally favoured the lions. When the British chose to partition India, the Nawab opted to take his tiny state to shikar-hungry Pakistan, where despite his best efforts he would have lost the battle to save the animals he lived to protect. But as the predominantly Hindu population objected to this plan, the Nawab was forced into exile. But he had already done his bit for the lion.

In the post-Independence years, when Jawaharlal Nehru -- egged on by conservationists such as K S Dharmakumarsinhji of Bhavnagar, and the indomitable Dr Salim Ali -- recognised the imminent threat to the lion, he threw the weight of his office behind the efforts to save the lion.

Eventually, on September 18, 1965 Gir was formally declared a Forest Reserve. What is now the central core was later declared a National Park in 1974. Then, in 1978, still more land was added to enhance the size and thus the security of this fast-shrinking habitat.

The fine bungalow at Sasan, where the forest rest house and the headquarters of the Gir Lion Sanctuary are located, was actually the place from where most lion hunts were launched. Today this is the nerve centre from where a protective umbrella is spread over an unique eco-system, that supports over 450 plant species, 32 mammals, 310 birds, 24 reptiles and over 2,000 insects.

History still communicates with visitors who enter the lion's domain at Gir. Several old temples, such as the Kankai Mata and Tulsi Shyam hot springs, harbour abandoned relics from bygone days. Pilgrims still visit these temples with the same fervour as they did hundreds of years ago.