Gazing in the Gir for the wild cats with Mr. Leopard Lucky

Sasan-Gir Forest

Sasan-Gir Forest

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, Sasan-Gir

A Maldhari Settlement, Sasan-Gir

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.

A Maldhari in SasanGir forest with his herd of Cattle

A Maldhari in SasanGir forest with his herd of Cattle

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!

Are you able to Spot it!

Leopard pix at ISO speed 800

Leopard pix at ISO speed 800

Leopard Moving away, Sasan Gir

Leopard Moving away, Sasan Gir

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.

A river flowing through Sasan Gir

A river flowing through Sasan Gir

At one place we noticed a pair of chubby mongoose frolicking and moving towards a bank of a river joyfully.

Crested Serpent Eagle

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.

The Sparrow Hawk

The Sparrow Hawk

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.

A Vulture in Gir

A Vulture 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.

Glowing Sasan Gir

Glowing Sasan Gir

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.

Sunset at Sasan Gir

Sunset at Sasan Gir

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

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.

Taking Nap, Asiatic Lion

Taking Nap, Asiatic Lion

Spotted Deer, Sasan Gir

Spotted Deer, Sasan Gir

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.

Wind-mills in Sasan Gir

Wind-mills in Sasan Gir

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.

Beautiful way to Junagarh

Beautiful way to Junagarh

29 Comments

  • Lucky you, saw Leopard and Lion.

    • manish khamesra says:

      Though we were lucky in spotting leopard but not so much as to track Lion in the Jungle. We saw Lion in Gir interpretation zone that was very similar to Bannerghata of Bangalore.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    In Ranthambore, we sighted Leopard, it was moving and it was not more than few seconds.

    MK – Your accounts make me feel privileged, lucky me to be able to read such stuff. I can’t believe at times that its the same you, guess the amount of research and hard-work is growing manifold with every new story. Super.

    On to Junagarh.

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Nandan,

      When we will meet, you will still find me the same, as stupid as I was ever ;-)
      This is about me :-))

      About the post, thanks a lot for the praise, I felt privileged. Thanks for your ever encouraging / informative/ critical comments.

      I do like to thank my friend Vivek Sinha and my wife Jaishree, who help me in editing these stories and making them presentable.

  • Srijan says:

    Great Story and amazing narration. I am still waiting for see the cat out in the wild. Will look for Mohan Bhai if I go to GIr.

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Thanks a lot Srijan. With its large big cat population, the probability of finding a big cat in Gir is high. Though rest is luck. About guides, they are assigned at random by forest officials and even though one knows about a knowledgable guide, I don’t think its possible to get one assigned.

      Thanks again Srijan.

  • jaishree khamesra says:

    Nandan,

    Manish was ALWAYS as hardworking and ‘let- me-learn-more” as he is now,
    and
    his determination and decisive power has grown manyfolds hidden behind Not-so-smart 24*7 appearance.

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Its so nice to get such a nice comment from one’s better half (literally) :-) I am feeling elated. Thanks Jaishree.

      BTW I could not understand “Not-so-smart 24*7 appearance”. I thought that I am a born “Manish Khamesra” ( I tried to think of smartest guys to put his name here, but could not think of anyone better than this guy).

      :-)))))

  • nandanjha says:

    MK – Get this comment by JK framed :-) and use it at right times.

  • jaishree khamesra says:

    Manish

    I dont think you would ever get this opportunity of flashing the framed comment as all thr fights nowadays revolve around kids- where of course MOM, that is , ME is the last word.

    BTW, by putting up a smiley after “literally’- you complimented and at the same time took it away. Now exactly this is how I am your better half-READING BETWEEN THE LINES AND LISTENING THE UNSPOKEN.

  • Joseph says:

    Pics are simply superb, especially in which leopard is there. nice article.

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Thanks Joseph for going through it and liking it as well.

      Pictures with leopard are not good, the problem was that I took them at ISO speed 800. On the small screen I could not make out that its so grainy, when I looked at full screen on my computer, I found that its so bad. A lesson learnt that pictures taken at very high ISO speed makes it very grainy. But I lost an opportunity to capture leopard in a nice picture.

      I even tried to reduce it through Adobe photo shops, but what I could make out were not so effective.

      Anyway I hope for a better luck next time.

  • Patrick Jones says:

    This is a marvelously crafted piece, notwithstanding the occasional hiccups. You were able to guide us all the way thru Gir, showcasing its richly diverse flora and fauna. You have once again proven that you are a story teller, a naturalist, an environmentalist, an anthropologist and a philosopher all rolled into one.

    There is scope of improvement as a wild photographer :-) May be you need to let Jaishree do the selection (as NJ SD team once did for a jungle trip). Itll be rewarding to let her take decisions outside kiddie stuff as well ;-)

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      My God! Patrick you have awarded so many qualities to me. Do I really deserve them? I am not even sure that I have any of them.

      Thanks for your comments, I love my readers and eagerly wait for their comments and you are among the very special ones.

      I agree that there is a big scope of improvement as a wild life photographer. I sometimes tell it to my camera as well and almost always pass all faults to it ( I have realized that I have strong managerial qualities).

      About Jaishree: I am always apprehensive of her, after all when someone more talented is around you all the time, you are concerned of eclipses ;-)

      I too love camera in Jaishree’s hand. Its only when she tells me that she wants to enjoy the Jungle and don’t want to click any more, the camera comes to my hand and this time it was the case :-)

      BTW I am not aware of the NJ-SD story. I give it an initial start. I don’t know who will complete it NJ, SD or PJ. Here I go .

      Once upon a time …

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Thanks Nandan and Patrick. I read it again and second time also it was equally enjoyable and yes photos were indeed a delight.

  • Jerry Jaleel says:

    Manish,

    Thank you for inviting me to this post. I must have been away from home when it originally appeared here last Summer.

    I have been fascinated by Gir lions for a long time. Their numbers were critically low in the 1930s, yet the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, during his time in India (1936-42) insisted on arranging a lion hunt for him. He shot two, and thus completing a list of all species of Indian animals including several dozens of tigers that he took home as trophies to decorate the walls of his home in Scotland.

    Reading this post is coincided with the arrival of a book: GIR FOREST & the Saga of Asiatic Lion by Sudipta Mitra,(2005) an excellent volume with color photographs. In it, I was surprised to see that the Gir Protected Area boasts the largest concentration of leopards in India- 311 of them, comparing to 109 in Corbett, 29 in Bandhavgarh, 79 in Ranthanbore and 71 in Kanha. Unlike its African cousin, Indian leopards are notoriously elusive as you correctly pointed out, and you were indeed lucky to see one in the bush.

    As for the Crested Serpent Eagle, you are absolutely right in identifying the bird. I couldn’t see the head of the Sparrow hawk clearly, but the banded tail feathers clearly gave away its owner being a Sparrow hawk, commonly known as Shikra in India. There are nearly 2 dozen species of Sparrow Hawks in the tropical forests around the world, and during certain months, India hosts a number of migratory hawks from other regions. They prey on small mammals and reptiles, whereas the Crested serpent eagle with its strong talons can tackle, kill and devour a cobra with ease.

    Thanks again Manish for sharing this, and as always, your pictures are brilliant.

    with best wishes,
    Jerry

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Thanks Jerry for going through the post and sharing the interesting information about Lord Linlithgow, leopards, Crested Serpent Eagle and Sparrow hawks.

      You are a gold mine of knowledge :-) and every comment of yours give new insights.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    I would like to share some interesting excerpts from an article “The Survivors” in Indian Express on 4th Sept by Nandini Nair. She has mentioned the positive effect of the ban on diclofenac. She mentioned that the rate of decline of Oriental white backed vulture has decreased to 40 percent of the rate before the ban.

    Here I would also like to share the interesting information that the author gathered from the scientists (Dr Prakash and his wife Nikita) at the captive breeding center of vultures in Pinjore.

    “Vultures live up to 50 years, pair for life, and lay only one egg a year. To obtain more eggs, avi-cultuarlists practise double-clutching. Within 10-15 days of the bird laying its eggs, if the egg is removed, the bird, still in breeding condition, will lay again. The first egg is then encubated artificially through a painstaking process, requiring precise monitoring and intense care, while the second egg is nurtured by the parents. During the year long process, from incubation to raising the fledgling, the scientists must be careful of “imprinting”, meaning that the vulture nestling must not learn behaviour patterns from the human care-giver.

    Nerves wrack vultures and when disturbed or exposed to strangers, they expel a noxious vomit. While the stench drives away the intruders, the excretion can lead to the bird’s dehydration. With each bird eating up to 4 kg a meat a week, the menu doesn’t come cheap. “We don’t want them to throw up that food” said Dr Nikita.

    They are now planning to release the first batch of 20-25 artificially incubated birds with a wild captive bird, which will act as a guide in the wild, teaching them how to obtain food.

    This time on our visit to Jim Corbett we found a breeding center of Vultures. Good to see and hope to get positive results of all these efforts.

  • Hi Manish

    This was indeed a good post with good pics .
    I want a help from you on this regards…………………………..

    I am visiting GIR forest for lion safari on 3rd january.I will be coming from Somnath in the morning and then go for safari and in the evening want to go back to Somnath.

    Can you tell where can i get the Jeep and guide ?
    What is the procedure for going on Safari ?
    Will i have to take permission from Forest authorities ?
    What is cost of per ticket ?

    • Manish Khamesra says:

      Hi Vishal

      I am sorry for little delay in reply. December last is peak season and it is difficult to get permits at that time. As 3rd jan is close, so I think it would be better to arrange permit in advance. As the sightings are more common in morning and evening safaris, these are high demand safaris.

      In my case, I took Ghanshyam Bhai’s, the owner of hotel Anapurna, help to arrange the permit. His contact numbers were: 02877-285569. He arranged for the Jeep as well. Guide is allocated randomly by forest department and tourist has little choice over them. At a site I also saw the number of Deputy Conservator of Forest, Wild Life Division, Sasan Gir-362135, Ph: (02879) 285541. I hope you may get some help from him as well. As I took help of Ghansyam bhai so I am not aware of the procedures.

      In my book, Deva Danga and Riley’s tracks are suggested as the good ones.

      Tinkoo, the driver whom Ghanshyam Bhai arranged was co-operative, ready to take extra miles for the sightings.

      I personally feel staying in Gir is better than staying in Somnath (Anil Farm house is an excellant place to stay).

      Please let me know in case you need any further information. And yes, we would be looking forward to your story after the trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *