In Pursuit of the Last Lions in Asia

By David McGonigal and Lynn Woodworth as they explore the forests of Gujarat

"Lions and tigers and bears - oh no!" sung Dorothy and her friends as they set off along the Yellow Brick Road to the Land of Oz. From these clues we can be sure that she was right to declare that she wasn't in Kansas. In fact, the only country on earth where all three species reside is India.

After a terrifying walk through long Indian grass one afternoon we concluded that the only thing worse than looking for tigers and not finding them is searching for the elusive beasts and unexpectedly finding them. Bears, on the other hand, can often be seen by the Indian roadside, chained and expected to perform tricks for passing tourists. The very fortunate may find a bear in the forested national parks of India.

Then we have India's lions. When one thinks of lions, Africa immediately comes to mind. That's fair: there are some 200,000 lions in Africa from West Africa to South Africa; in western India, there's a population of 250 asiatic lions in just one national park.

Fossil remains reveal that lions once lived everywhere from England, across Europe and the Middle East to Siberia - even Alaska and the Yukon. That's a wider territorial range than any mammal apart from man and his livestock. It's thought that African and Asiatic lions became different sub-species somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

In the last century Asiatic lions have been hunted to extinction in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Early this century only 20 or less were left in India so lion hunting was banned. In 1947 their home in the Gir Forest of the west Indian state of Gujarat was declared a reserve.

It's an out-of-the-way place to visit. The fastest way we found was to fly from Bombay to Bhavnagar from where we were driven for several bone shaking hours to Sasan Gir, just north of Veraval on the Arabian Sea.

In Australia, an operator had costed our short side trip to see the lions at well over $1000 - not including airfares. An Indian operator offered us the same trip for just a few hundred dollars so we booked with him. We could probably have done the whole excursion for not much more than $100 if we had been prepared to take our chances on arriving at the Lion Safari Lodge without a booking.

But any travel in India gives new meaning to the expression "thrown to the lions". We arrived at the gates of the lodge at dusk, tired and dusty after hours of chewing on grit and diesel fumes. The lodge was closed for renovations. So we tried the Forest Department Guest House. The remarkably unhelpful manager there told us that he held no reservation for us and, despite the evidence of rows of keys hanging on the hooks behind him, he didn't have any rooms available. Eventually, he relented and gave us an air conditioned room "but it's booked tomorrow so you'll have to leave."

We certainly weren't eligible for dinner - that had to be pre-ordered before noon. In fact, we only had minutes to spare if we wanted to order tomorrow's breakfast.

We awoke before dawn and joined other tourists shivering near the hut from where the open 4WD vehicles would take us into the park. We were warmly dressed because we knew from African experience that dawn game drives are only rivalled by Antarctic exploration in their cold quotient.

Only a few minutes into the drive we came across a pair of lionesses. Now perhaps Africans make too much of the ferociousness of their lions with strict prohibition on even putting your arms outside the vehicle. But it was still a surprise to see two Indian workers strolling along a few metres behind these lions chatting and swinging their lunch boxes. Then we noticed bus stops along the road. Perhaps I missed a sign at the entrance declaring "Australians on bicycles welcome"?

Asiatic lions look different from the lions of Africa. They are paler, prefer forest to open grassland, and have cute black tufts at the end of their tails. The males have smaller manes than their cousins in Kruger. And, despite complaints from local cattle farmers, they appeared to have manners enough not to attack workmen or tourists.

Those were the last lions we were to see on the drive. Fortunately, we filled in the hours spotting deer and antelope, specifically chital, sambar and nilgai. The bears of the 1412 square kilometre park remained elusive. But we had (in the words of the brochure) "numerous varieties of birds, whose sprightly hops, molodious (sic) twitterring (sic)-softly add to the sublime symphony which the nature has orchestrated here".

The rest of the day was occupied endeavouring to persuade the guest house manager that he should give us a room for another night. We chatted to a young English traveller who was heading to the few shops of the village on a futile quest for a towel. "Weren't you given a towel?" we asked as we showed him those artistically arranged on our hard-won beds. "The manager said there weren't any," he replied. Filled with indignation, he confronted the manager again who eventually drew a key from his pocket and unlocked the large cupboard behind his desk to reveal scores of pristine towels.

On the following morning we bounced down rutted tracks for an hour before we met a woman hanging out her washing. She pointed out that there were two lions just across the road. "Quick, chase them" our local guide declared as he clambered over a low stone wall in hot pursuit. We followed. The lions, both male, continued to walk deeper into the forest taking nervous glances over their shoulders at the six of us crashing through the bush behind them. I've never pursued lions before. There was a stirring touch of Hemingway in the concept of turning the tables on these predators in pursuit of a travel article. Literary lion indeed.

Sadly, it was less intrepid than it sounds. The lions of Sasan Gir are breeding well but there is some concern about inbreeding. The noted American geneticist Steve O'Brien discovered this when tranquillising lions to obtain essential blood samples. He used full strength darts for the lions of Serengeti with no harmful effects. Suspecting that the lions Gir may be inbred, he cautiously reduced the dosage to less than half strength. Even so, the first lion darted simply (and immediately) died. Genetically speaking, these lions couldn't open their own milk bottles. No wonder they ran away.

Facts

Gir National Park is closed during the monsoon (mid June to mid October or mid November). The best time to visit is between December and April. You need a visa to visit India - apply well in advance.

Our tour was organised by Major S K Yadav, owner of Wanderlust Travels in Delhi, Tel (91-11) 687-5200 or 611-1899, Fax 688-5188.

For information about India contact the Government of India Tourist Office, Level 1, 17 Castlereagh St, Sydney NSW 2000, Tel 232-1600.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd