In the jungle, the mighty jungle
Praveen Singh, the scriptwriter and director of India's Wandering Lions, on following the big cats in a human-dominated landscape.
When the sun goes down and the dust settles after a bustling day in the forests of Gir, the Asiatic lions come out to hunt. With the lioness at the forefront, they set out in prides of five to 10. In the next few hours, the Gir National Park, the only place in the world where Asiatic lions are found, throbs with a fierce energy that very few forests can match. But what makes Gir special is that, in this landscape, humans and lions co-exist. For over two-and-a-half years, Praveen Singh and team followed the lions and lioness of Gir with their camera to tell the story of how the animals survive in a human-dominated area. The Discovery Channel airs their documentary India's Wandering Lions on July 6.
"The people are happy that the lions are around," says Praveen Singh, the scriptwriter and director of the show, in a telephone interview. He recalls how farmers he spoke to felt that their crops were protected from animals such as deer if lions roamed their lands. "Close to a third of the population is living in a human-dominated landscape," he adds. This situation has resulted in "casualties on both sides," he admits. "Lions as well as people have been injured." There have been reports of lions mauling people and lions falling prey to wells in the area.
But, there exists a certain tolerance in Gir that ensures a harmony. With support from the Forest Department and NGOs, Praveen says that several open wells have been covered up. It is this story that his documentary tells — of the co-existence of man and one of the most magnificent predators in the world.
He faced plenty of challenges during the filming. Lions, being creatures of the night, he had to follow them around in the dark to film them. He initially planned to follow one particular animal or a pride, to tell their story. "But lions move a lot, it's difficult to follow one pride," he says.
"Once upon a time, the Asiatic lion roamed Central Asia and was found across Northern India, all the way up to Bihar," observes Praveen. But hunting and cultivation of the plain savannahs, resulted in a massive depletion in their population. He says that in the 1920s, their numbers were as low as 20. But they gradually "bounced back", as hunting was outlawed and due to conservation efforts of the forest department, he adds. At present, over 500 Asiatic Lions roam the forests of Gir and also spill outside the sanctuary into villages in the area.
In the wild, every moment is unpredictable. Praveen recalls how late one night, his team travelled deep into the forest and set up their thermal camera. But their subjects were nowhere in sight, and they decided to call it a day and packed up. Suddenly, four lions crossed the highway and strode majestically into the field nearby, right in front of their eyes. "It was a beautiful sight," says Praveen. "But we couldn't capture the moment."
India's Wandering Lions will be aired on the Discovery Channel at 9 p.m. on July 6.