Over lunch, a ranger named Kiran enlightened me further. “We are preserving our heritage,” she said. “The lion is the symbol of Indian sovereignty; it’s even on our bank notes.” I fished in my pocket for a one-rupee bill and sure enough, there in one corner was a depiction of four lions standing back-to-back. This is India’s national emblem, an adaptation of the Lion Pillar erected by emperor Ashoka in Sarnath around 250 B.C. But Kiran wasn’t done.Gautama Buddha, she continued, was known as Sakyasimha, “the lion of the Sakyas,” and his first sermon was called Simhanada, “the lion’s roar.” In Hindu mythology, the lion is the symbol of royalty, and the king and his throne—the singhasan, or lion’s seat—are inseparable. Singh, which simply means “lion,” has been a common middle or surname among Hindus and Sikhs in northern India since the seventh century.
To keep its emblem alive, India enacted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 and amended it again in 2002. Hunting is now punishable with prison time, and there are fines for illegal grazing, teak woodcutting, fires, and other environment depredations. To protect natural habitats, the Gir was made a national reserve in 1965 and a national park in 1975. “In the 1960s, 75 percent of the lion’s diet was domestic livestock,” Kamlesh Adhiya, founder of the Asiatic Lion Protection Society, told me later. “By relocating and compensating the Maldhari outside the forest and increasing the ungulate population, the share of domestic cattle in the menu of the lion has been reduced. The lions at Gir have changed their choice to chital, wild boar, sambar, and langur.”
But no amount of food can keep the animals in one place. “Lions are great nomads, great wanderers,” Adhiya said. Drought and dry riverbeds caused by illegal mining have driven lions out of the Gir, and satellite colonies have been established in coastal areas as far away as 200 kilometers. Forty percent of the lion population is thought to now live outside the forest, and this is causing problems. Roaming lions are being electrocuted, drowned in wells, and hit by cars and trains—260 lions have been killed in the past two years, and lion attacks have increased as well. The need for translocation is becoming urgent.
Nevertheless, their protectors’ hopes remain high. As we watched one of the impressive animals yawn and stretch in front of us, Trupti said, “They are remarkably resilient. These lions have shown that given half a chance, they can survive. And thrive.”
Jet Airways flies daily from Mumbai to the onetime Portuguese enclave of Diu, from where it’s a two-hour drive to the Gir Forest. If you’re arriving instead via the Gujarati capital of Ahmedabad, expect a seven-hour drive.
When to Go
November through February are Gujarat’s cool months. The Gir Forest National Park is in any case closed from mid-October to mid- June; for more information, visit girnationalpark.in.
Where to Stay
A choice of cottages, villas, suites, and tented rooms await at The Fern Gir Forest Resort (91-287/728-5999; doubles from US$110), where the facilities include a swimming pool, spa, and two restaurants serving international and pan-Indian cuisine. Don’t count on a bar, though: Gujarat is an alcohol-free state.
This article originally appeared in the December/January print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Into the Lion’s Den”)