Table of contents for Gujarat
- The Saga of Somnath and Sardar Patel
- Sun-soaked in Somnath
- Roaring Gir
- Gazing in the Gir for the wild cats with Mr. Leopard Lucky
- Lessons of life at Anil Farm House (New name Gir Jungle Resort)– Sasan Gir
- Junagadh – A journey through the ages
- Junagadh – A walk through history and folklores at Uparkot Fort
- The honest Junagadh
Rolling Hills, undulating terrain, eight perennial rivers, interspersed with innumerable streams, roars of lions and their echoes reverberating in the valleys, alarm calls of deer and langoors, birds of prey gliding in the sky, elusive leopards lurking in thickets – all these make Gir, a truly action packed forest. – Gir forest as described in Gir Interpretation Zone.
27th December 2008 – Tinkoo bhai, the driver of our Gypsy, whom I introduced in my previous post, arrived on time at Anil Farm House. He was accompanied by Mohan bhai, our guide on that day.
One of the hotel staff members introduced Mohan bhai to us as “Mr Leopard Lucky”. The very first feelings were not positive. I was unsure whether it was sweet-talk to please Mohan bhai or an overstatement to please us or that person was rubbing salt on our wounds of longstanding desire of spotting a wild cat in the wilds. Brushing aside my negative emotions and considering positively I assumed that probably we were accompanied by a knowledgeable Guide. Mild-mannered Mohan bhai smilingly clarified that in recent safaris he had been lucky in spotting leopards several times.
After a pause he started to share his almost fatal encounter with a leopard. One night he and his maternal uncle were having dinner in his house. Suddenly, they heard loud cries of buffaloes from the backyard. As they rushed out, they saw a leopard on the back of a buffalo. They tried to scare it; it backtracked initially and then suddenly attacked his uncle. When Mohan bhai tried to save his uncle, it turned, attacked him and then ran away; leaving behind both of them seriously injured.
That near fatal encounter gave mystical powers to Mohan bhai. According to Mohan bhai, after that incident, he was fortunate in spotting leopards in several safaris.
I was wondering, today, whether we will be able to break our jinx of not spotting a wild cat so far.
Leopard is an elusive wild cat. It quite often has conflicts with human beings. After India became an independent country, a few naturalists fought for the cause of lions and requested the Government for their protection and conservation. But the same people felt that killing leopard was justified. Therefore, in Gir, killing lions was banned much earlier than killing leopards.
As we entered the jungle, Mohan bhai pointed towards some trees at the entrance and told us that they were sandalwood. I took a lungful of air to smell the fragrance. There was none. I was informed that those trees were planted only a few years ago and a sandalwood tree gives out fragrance only after around 20 years. I was cautioned that the smell of the wood is very intoxicating and at that time that one may even find snakes wrapped around the trees.
We continued moving deep inside the jungle but even then we crossed human settlements. It puzzled me. I enquired, were we in the core area of the jungle or at the periphery, about to enter the core. I was told that indeed we were in the core area and those were Maldhaari settlements. The literal meaning of the word Maaldhari is the keeper of cattle; “Maal” refers to the cattle and “Dhaari” means the keeper. Their settlements are called nesses.
|A Maldhari settlement|
Gir has an interesting balance between humans and the jungle. It is an exemplary jungle where human beings and wild cats share a symbiotic relationship with the jungle and also with each other. From times immemorial, Maldharis are an integral part of the Gir ecosystem. Nobody can dream of Gir forest without a Maldhari leading a herd of buffaloes with a long bamboo stick in his hand.
Maldharis have a strong belief that they have a direct lineage to Lord Krishna. They adopted vegetarianism under the influence of Ashoka and are still strict vegetarians. They lead a nomadic life and are expert in making indigenous medicines from the herbs and the fruits found in the forest.
I am always concerned about greedy human beings sharing space with rare-exotic wild animals.
I asked about any possibility of Maldharis helping poachers. I was told that it has never happened. In reality Maldharis are the Government’s Eyes and the Ears to prevent poaching. It is commendable as the Maldharis continue to assist the Government inspite of a large number of their cattle falling prey to the marauding lions. In recent years many Maldhari families have been relocated outside Gir and those who remain inside are paid compensation by Government for the inevitable loss of buffaloes incurred by them.
Having said that, it is a common saying in the Gir, that where there is a Maldhari, probability of spotting a big cat is very less. They do guard their live stock with zeal. Maldharis usually scare the wild cats away, by hurling stones at them. This is a reason that the fearless lions of Gir allow humans, esp. the khaki uniform clad rangers, to come very close but they intelligently avoid the white–dressed Maldharis.
Very soon we were passing through an open area. Our driver suddenly stopped the Gypsy. In a hushed voice Mohan bhai drew our attention to the screeches of langoors and suggested that a leopard could be around. He then signaled us to remain silent. Fully vigilant and alert with heightened sensory acuity we waited patiently. A few vehicles were also waiting at some distance. After waiting for around fifteen minutes the vehicles at the front lost patience and left.
We were standing silently inside our Gypsy, keeping a close watch for the slightest movement within the vegetation. Slowly the frequency of langoors’ shrieks started to decrease. After some time, there was a sound of a stone hitting a bush. It seemed that sensing danger; some Maldhari in the vicinity had thrown a stone to scare the wild cat.
Our guide hinted that if a leopard was around, it may actually run across the path behind our Gypsy. It didn’t. It appeared that the leopard moved in some other direction. We missed the big cat :-(, I am convinced that it had been around.
We were not in a hurry. By now, we were well ensconced in the jungle ambience. Under the influence of the pacified sun, the perfect calmness of the jungle was having its mesmerizing effect on us. We remained standing in our Gypsy, enjoying the pleasant breeze, keenly looking in all directions and listening to the music of the silent jungle. My younger kid was surprised to notice that none of the adults was speaking. He thought that it was his turn to speak and he started to sing gibberish; it blended perfectly well with the melody of the jungle symphony.
Suddenly, we started to hear another call. This time the call was of a barking deer from opposite direction. And then all of a sudden it was there. We could see a full grown leopard at some distance. Initially it was lurking in the thicket as if planning to attack someone. Later on it started to walk grace fully and graciously lost interest in its prey.
|Are you able to spot it?|
|It should help|
|I learnt that taking pictures at the ISO speed of 800 makes picture very noisy|
|Leopard moving away|
We were spellbound. It was for the first time that we had spotted a wild cat, a leopard, and that too for almost fifteen to twenty minutes. Then, the guide sought our permission to move the vehicle closer. He cautioned us that it could alert the leopard. It could then run either from the front of our Gypsy or vanish into the jungle. We took the chance, and as per Murphy’s Law, it moved in opposite direction and disappeared in the jungle :-(
Mohan bhai is really “Leopard Lucky”. Was it a sheer luck? I attribute it more to his capabilities to make out the invisible signs, to take notice of the inaudible foot steps and to smell the presence; unique and indispensable qualities of any good jungle guide.
Mohan bhai praised us for our patience. He told us that most of the time tourists become very impatient. They think that they are being fooled and so usually force the drivers to move. I and Jaishree, were happy. As parents we want that our kids enjoy jungles and appreciate the bounty of treasures and surprises the nature has for inquisitive minds. We firmly believe in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through man, in spite of real sorrows, Nature says, he is my creation and maugre all his impertinent griefs he shall be glad with me.” In his excitement Rachit too was silent for a long time and was enjoying the safari to the fullest. In the end we all were rewarded with a visual feast for a good duration.
Our navigators told us that their first target was met. They had planned to target a leopard in the beginning and a lion later.
The rugged hilly terrain of the Gir, forms the catchments areas of important rivers like Hiran, Shingoda, machhundri, datardi, raval and shetrunji. The diversity of food resulted in flourishing diversity of animals and bird species.
At one place we noticed a pair of chubby mongoose frolicking and moving towards a bank of a river joyfully.
|Crested Serpent Eagle|
As we moved further, we also spotted hawks of several types – the crested serpent eagle, the hawk eagle and the sparrow hawk. The crested serpent eagle nests in treetops near fresh water. Its nests are constructed with sticks & contain not more than a single egg at a time.
Sparrow Hawk also known as shikra, on the other hand is a small bird of prey. Its hunting technique mainly involves surprising its victims as it flies from hidden perch or flicks over a bush to catch its prey unaware.
At certain places I noticed Mohan Bhai quickly getting down from the Gypsy to pick the namkeen and biscuit pouches thrown in the jungle by the uncaring and callous tourists. Mohan bhai on such occasions explained us that he was doing so as the forest warden was on inspection and he wanted to avoid the warden suspecting us. I think it was an excuse. He was doing it because he loved his jungles and understood the importance of not making it a garbage dump. It takes guts to remain honest among dishonest, sadly on many such occasions, we find the honest giving an ‘explanation’ for their honesty.
In both the safaris we did, we could not locate the pride of the Gir, the Asiatic Lion. Though we enjoyed both the safaris, we liked the evening safari more than the morning one. In the evening safari the temperature shifted from hot to pleasant. It perfectly symbolized my philosophy of an ideal life, when tough and harsh young life, a life full of struggles in youth leads to pleasant, calm old age.
|Sighting Vultures in Gir|
We ended the safari with the sightings of vultures, so synonymous with the end. These scavenging birds, feeding mostly on the carcasses of dead animals has seen its population decline by 95%. This decline is mainly due to diclofenac – a veterinary drug. Diclofenac was widely used in India as an anti-inflammatory pain relief drug for domestic animals, especially cattle. Vultures that eat the carcasses of cattle treated with this medicine die of kidney failure within a few days. Diclofenac has been banned in the country, but Environmentalists suspect that many veterinarians still use it.
As a kid, I always associated the end of battles/wars with the hordes of vultures feasting on dead and the severely wounded soldiers. I used to shudder at such thoughts; it always left me wondering about the futility of wars and how human lives were lost on things that were non-issues for most of those engaging in them.
|Jungle glowing as Gold|
As sun moved further westward the jungle started to glow as gold. We were part of an amazingly beautiful experience. Sun was peeping surreptitiously from the trees and leaves.
As we came out of the jungle, the setting sun was at its creative best as I have never seen before. It was presenting before us an extremely beautiful panorama. The beautiful shades of crimson, orange and yellow were splashed on the canvas, but these colors were not limited to the setting sun’s preferred west corner but were splattered across a huge semicircle ranging from extreme north to extreme south almost 180 degree. This was definitely an unusual view for me. I wish I had a photograph to share.
|Tinkoo bhai on extreme right and Mohan bhai on extreme left|
Most of the tourists who are declined “darshan” by the Royal Asiatic lions, heads toward “Gir Interpretation Zone” or Dewaliya – a partially fenced off area of the park. The next morning, on our onward journey to Junagarh we also visited Dewaliya. It had a very well kept and informative reception centre. Private vehicles are not allowed inside the park. Government busses take tourists around every 45 minutes.
In the short bus journey there, we passed a solitary deer, then a pair of it and finally herds of them, leading to the Royals. The Royals’ were resting at that time. There sighting did not excite us. Those lions looked tame, docile and old, lying in the shade like street dogs. Although these lions still have to hunt their food, the limited space deer’s have to escape, is not enough to keep the prides and their pride fit. We were told that the early morning safaris are the right time to see them in action. May be seeing them in action would have created a different opinion.
One of the pleasant sights was noticing the wind-mills. The array after arrays of such windmills in Jaisalmer and a few at the Gir shows that finally as a nation we are realizing the importance of harnessing immense wind power to generate electricity. These are though functional windmills not carrying much visual charm of the old world wind-mills we had seen in Amsterdam.
We felt enriched with very special memories of the scenic Gir and our stay at Anil Farm House. The vehicle moved ahead on a beautiful road with trees flanking both the sides and forming a verdant canopy. We continued onwards towards Junagarh, thus bidding Adieu to the Gir segment of our trip.