It’s breathtaking, rare, and needs your support. The Asiatic lion, once found across south and west Asia, was hunted to near-extinction and only a dozen lions remained in the private hunting grounds of the Nawab of Junagarh by the year 1900.
According to the ‘Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society’, the Asiatic lion was found in Sindh in the west to Bihar in the east even in the late 1800s, but heavy hunting by British colonial officers and Indian princes led to its decline. Because it was easier to locate as compared to tigers, it was easier to hunt.
Today, however, the population is thriving, and according to forest department’s estimates in 2020, Gujarat had a population of 674 lions. We travelled from Ahmedabad to Gir to spot one, and found many.
Reaching Gir: The nearest major airport is Ahmedabad (about 370 km away); there are limited flight options also to Rajkot (160 km away) and Diu (100 km away).
From Ahmedabad, the best option is a self-driven rental car, such as Revv or Zoomcar. We picked up Maruti Suzuki Ciaz, a sedan, thanks to its good fuel efficiency of about 18 km/litre, and its boot space that bigger and more usable than a similar-sized SUV.
There are three routes—via Amreli, via Rajkot and via Junagarh. Opt for the latter as it is more scenic. The base for Gir National Park is Sasan Gir, a sleepy town with plenty of hotels—everything shuts by around 10 pm (the hotels remain open, though).
Gir National Park takes only advance online bookings, and there are four major safaris:
Gir Jungle Safari: The most popular of all, it takes you inside the Gir National Park, which has more than 300 lions. Tourists are taken around in an open Gypsy, and chances of spotting a lion are high here.
Devalia Safari Park: Also called Gir Interpretation Zone, it’s a mini version of Gir in an enclosed space of 412 hectares (4.12 square km). It has almost all representative wildlife and forests of Gir, and the aim is to create awareness about the Gir ecosystem’s conservation values.
Ambardi Safari Park: Similar to Devalia, it spans over 365 hectares.
Girnar Nature Safari: Located near Junagadh on the holy Girnar hill, it’s a proper jungle safari, and forest officials told us it has more than 50 free-ranging lions. Like Gir, it also has leopards, spotted deers, sambar, crocodiles, civet cats, Indian golden jackal and the elusive hyena.
The lion: Palaeontologists say Asiatic lions migrated from Africa to Asia during the Ice Age, 20,000-50,000 years ago, and have since developed unique genetic characteristics. The most visible difference is that male Asiatic lions have a shorter mane compared to African lions, and all Asiatic lions have a longitudinal fold of skin running along the belly (not found in African lions).
Threats: While man-animal conflict is a perpetual threat, the most crucial issue right now is Gir itself. A forest official told FE that even though locals want lions to stay in Gir, a single home for an endangered species isn’t a good idea. “Recently, some lions died due to the outbreak of canine distemper virus, which spreads from dogs to cattle and water bodies,” he said on the condition of anonymity. “Fire or an epidemic can wipe out most of them.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court allowed translocation of lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh (in Kuno, where cheetahs from Namibia have been released), but the process couldn’t even begin.
“The National Emblem (Ashoka Pillar) has lions on it,” the forest official said. “It implies that lions belong to India, not to a state.”