Saturday, September 07, 2013

Pride of the jungle

Pride of the jungle
The Hindu

A lioness at a drinking hole inside the sanctuary.

Come October, and season begins in Gir, the home of the fabulous Asiatic lion. Zerin Anklesaria was there recently and, thankfully, lived to tell the tale.

On a quiet night, so they say, the roar of an adult male lion can be heard five miles away. No such roaring welcome greeted us as we drove into Sasan Gir with the moon riding high, but we were certainly in lion country, with road signs pointing the way to Mane Land Jungle Lodge, Lion's Paw Resort, Pride of Gir, Elsa's Lair, and so on.

For me, this was a sentimental journey, for my father had served under the Nawab of Junagadh before Independence and as children we had visited Gir, staying in palatial grandeur at The Royal Hunting Lodge. The Nawab, a great animal lover, rarely hunted and it was chiefly maintained for Indian rajas and British VIPs for whom a lion was a prized trophy.

A party of 20 of us stayed there for four memorable days in sybaritic luxury. This was soon after the then Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, had left. The cellars were still stocked with the choicest wines, and the larders with cheeses, jams and canned fruit from Australia. The chefs cooked up mind-boggling meats, game and desserts.

Six of us little girls were allotted the master bedroom where the centrepiece was an enormous double bed with an 8-inch box-spring mattress imported especially for the Viceregal couple. Far from prying adult eyes, we spent our evenings using it as a trampoline to see who could jump the highest. The bed survived the onslaught. The mattress did not.

The world outside presented a harrowing contrast. A single tarred road led to the hunting lodge, and the Forest Officer occupied the only other building. Jeep tracks meandered through the forest and the Maldhari herdsmen merged with the hard, brown earth, living in poverty with their cattle in villages scattered across the 1400 sq. km of the sanctuary. In this semi-desert region agriculture was impossible.

Coming here now what a difference I found. We drove in from Rajkot on ribbon-smooth roads to the peripheral areas of the sanctuary — all neat, well-planned and free of garbage. With tourism has come unimaginable prosperity. Accommodation ranges from dharamsalas and budget hotels to the lordly Taj; canals supply water for gardens and cultivation; and local children study at an English medium school.

Our first safari started off rather tamely. I had the front seat in the jeep and couldn't hear what the guide was saying. My information came solely from the grumpy driver who pointed out 'snake', 'deer', 'mongoose' and other uninspiring fauna in a single word. 'Budd' had me stumped, till he amplified. 'Peacock', he said.

It was just half an hour to closing time when we got the exciting news. A tracker came and whispered to the guide, who passed along the magic word 'lion'. We took our place in a line of jeeps and waited in reverential silence as if in church. At last it was our turn to enter the sanctum and we moved down a track deep into the jungle. There, under the shade of a tree, we came upon them, two lionesses and five cubs, feasting on a nilgai. A thrilling sight but a poor photo-op, for the evening sun cast too many shadows and the lionesses were sitting low in the long grass, while bits and pieces of cub flashed in and out of the frame three-quarters two pointy ears, half a puckered face, a raised paw, a tail tip.

Later we encountered two angry lionesses rearing up on their hind legs, clawing and snarling at each other. Photo-op? Alas no! They were so enraged that our jeep had to keep a safe distance.

Back at the resort, everyone was envious. Some unfortunates had spent a packet on as many as three safaris, and seen only monkey, deer, and, of course, 'budd'. Tourists often think that a lion sighting is guaranteed and, when disappointed, are vocal in their displeasure. A manager was once rudely roused from his slumbers by angry guests who had been out in vain since 5 a.m. They staged a gherao and shouted slogans, 'Paisa vasool, paisa vasool', demanding their money back.

The kings of the forest are as lazy as feudal monarchs. The male has only to guard his territory and propagate, which he does with maniacal zest. Everything else is left to the lioness. She must hunt for prey, feed and train her cubs and protect them from predators, including other lions. An adult male is the lord of his territory and eliminates all future rivals including his progeny, knowing that otherwise they will kill him when in their prime. The 'sons' in a pride are therefore highly prized, pampered and protected, both by their mothers and the Forest Officers. Patriarchy is as invidious in the jungle as outside it.

Lions are far more human-friendly than leopards or tigers, but only as long as one keeps within limits. In earlier days, the 'pagis' or traditional trackers, ever eager to display their affinity with the animal to visiting dignitaries, would place a handkerchief on the mane of a sleeping lion with the help of a stick, while another would retrieve it. However, one day, legend has it that the lion suddenly woke up, and both entertainment and entertainer came to a gory end.

Then there was the biker on his way to a local temple. Seeing a gorgeously maned specimen sitting quietly by the roadside, he whipped out his phone-camera and edged closer and closer until the lion took umbrage, and with a mighty swipe of its paw dispatched the foolish young man to the other world. In the jungle this lordly animal is king, and mere humans who disrespect his royal status pay a heavy price.

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