Living with the King
It's a misty morning in Junagadh district of southern Gujarat. The village dogs have been barking uninterruptedly since the wee hours. As a haze envelops the village, people waking up are confronted by a curious sight — on one of the roads, the blood-spattered, disembowelled carcass of a cow lies tended by an army of flies. The onlookers, including a bunch of children, display a sense of awed interest without feeling the least bit scared. Of course, they know it was killed by no mere jackal or hyena but rather an alpha predator — the Asiatic lion.
But how can a thickly inhabited village become a hunting ground for lions? And why hadn't mass panic gripped the place by now? These are questions Discovery Channel's latest special wildlife feature, India's Wandering Lions, seeks to answer.
The Gir Forest National Park is the last surviving home of the Asiatic lion, which once roamed in their multitudes throughout Central Asia. However, unchecked hunting for sport in the 18th and 19th centuries brought their numbers down to a handful. That's when the Nawab of Junagadh, Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi, declared the area a "protected" zone at the beginning of the 20th century. So much for history, but what has brought the park into sharp focus is the rapid increase in the numbers of the rare species, from 411 in 2010 to 523 this year. And not only should the forest department, NGOs and conservationists be credited, the local population deserves special mention because they have warmed to the task of having lions in their midst. The spillover effect outside the confines of the sanctuary has meant that the animals often go from one forest patch to another through agricultural fields, village grasslands and human habitations.
How have people reacted to this change? Director and scriptwriter of the programme, Praveen Singh, says, "People are proud to have lions in their state and most know that they are not going to injure or attack humans unless provoked. Many farmers said that they didn't mind the lions in their fields or mango orchards as they kept deer and other wild herbivores away from their crops." It is an incredible story of coexistence, perhaps without parallel in the world.
However, going into the land of lions and filming them as they go about their lives is no mean feat. And the results are astonishing and throw light on a hitherto unknown facet of the animal's existence. Startling, to say the least, are the innumerable sequences captured through special thermal and starlight cameras during nights bathed in resplendent moonlight. But only Singh can talk about the toil behind the breathtaking visuals. "It's a very different world at night. Just the fact that we were working with no lights at all made navigation difficult, but over and above that was using completely new technology. The thermal camera required constant resetting of exposures as one travelled. It meant using a mouse with a track pad and adjusting a slider scale while the vehicle was moving. Believe me, that's tough," he says. And one is definitely inclined to believe him!
Those special cameras were sourced from a company called Ammonite in the UK, which enabled filming in otherwise complete darkness. Offering a peek into the process, Singh says, "We did not 'set up cameras' but we had multiple cameras mounted in a couple of vehicles. The camera technology itself was complex and we had multiple car batteries for power, computers to record onto along with a pile of lenses to work with both during the day and night. As a result, our Gypsies were really cramped and once the two camerapersons in each vehicle took their positions they stayed like that for several hours at a time."
Moreover, filming took place according to the convenience of the king of the jungle and little wonder that it would be the case when one wishes to portray the natural behaviour of the animals. Singh says, "Lions typically sleep during the day, move around in the late evening hours and well into the night, or in the early morning, so we had to work around their clock. Therefore, we had multiple camera crews working day and night. There was a crew that would film early morning and during the day, and then at least two teams would take over, starting in the afternoon and working late into the night, even many a time being out till 3-4 am. As we were trying to film lions outside the forest, it often meant travelling long distances every day and, of course, eating a basic meal of packed chapatis and potatoes!"
Wildlife features often entail working without a script and Singh attests to this fact.He says that initially they had planned on showcasing the efforts of rescue teams in Sasan Gir but ended up focusing on the story of a few prides instead. The team spent more than four months filming on location and for eight months thereafter did post-production work because the thermal images demanded a lot of time. However, it's all worth it when one watches the final product. Does he feel that viewers will perceive lions differently after watching the programme? "In a fast changing world, where wild habitats are disappearing or getting fragmented, it will become increasingly necessary for us to live with animals. The onus is on us to enable that to happen and find mitigating strategies for conserving wildlife," he says.