Sunday, March 13, 2011

Life in the lair

Life in the lair
The Star By Graham Simmons

The lions of India, once on the verge of extinction, are making a comeback at the Sasan Gir National Park.

The lions seem oblivious to the presence of humans. Maybe they feel totally unthreatened in this privileged environment, where national park status has seen the end to poaching.

Whatever the case, they play and cavort as though the paparazzi (camera-wielding visitors like myself) aren't even there. But then, what visitor would not feel shutter-happy here?

India's Sasan Gir National Park is the last remaining lair of the impressive (OK, maybe even majestic) Asiatic lion. With the 2010 census indicating that lion numbers had risen to 411 — up from just 177 in 1968 — the species now appears to have been saved. It's a far cry from the time around 1880 when just 12 lions were reported, the remnants of a species that once roamed the whole of northern and central India.

A lioness on the prowl in Sasan Gir National Park, perhaps looking for prey like the sambar deer (below).

At the time, the lions seemed to face certain extinction.

It just may have been the Nawab of Junagadh who saved the Asiatic lion. His report of 1880 may have deliberately understated the real number of remaining lions in an attempt to gain public sympathy. And not a moment too soon, as the species had progressively become extinct across the whole of the rest of India from around 1840 in the eastern state of Bihar to about 1870 in Rajasthan. By 1913, it is believed, just 18 lions remained in the whole of India.

The ancient walled city of Junagadh, gateway to Sasan Gir National Park, is the de facto "capital" of the region of Saurashtra, a subregion of the state of Gujarat. Astonishingly, Saurashtra used to be home to no fewer than 212 of India's 562 independent kingdoms. Junagadh, with its mango orchards, gum-tree lined streets and houses draped with bougainvillea vines, stimulates all the senses at once.

I got to Junagadh aboard the comfortable and uncrowded Girnar Express, which leaves the state capital Ahmedabad at 9pm, arriving at Junagadh around six the next morning. Upon arrival, I was immediately blown away by a city that combines the ancient and modern in a bewildering manner, as though the Guggenheim Museum had somehow been moved right next door to The Sphinx.

One of Junagadh's principal claims to fame is the famous monumental rock just outside the city walls, bearing the inscriptions of the great Emperor Ashoka, dating as far back as 273BC.

Emperor Ashoka was a ferocious military leader who, sickened by the results of his conquests, became a model ruler, promulgating a series of edicts inscribed on rock pillars all across India.

The 14 Junagadh edicts (all revolutionary for the time) enshrine the rights of women and slaves; enjoin the planting of trees and medicinal herbs; and encourage "growth in the essentials of all religions".

Other must-see (and must-climb) sights include the extraordinary Mahabat Maqbara, the 19th century mausoleum of Baha-ud-din, which with its florid stone canopies and towering spiral staircases looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.

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