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  • Writer's pictureAadeesh Deshpande

A close encounter with the king and queen of the forest at Sasan Gir National Park.

If you're a wildlife enthusiast looking for a thrilling safari adventure, Sasan Gir National Park should be on your travel bucket list. Visitors can embark on an exciting safari adventure to witness the park's wildlife up close.

This Indian national park located in the Junagadh district of Gujarat, India is renowned for its successful conservation project, which has preserved the Asiatic lion's last abode. Covering 259 square kilometers and part of a 1,412 square kilometers protected sanctuary, Sasan Gir offers a dry and deciduous hilly forest that is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including 38 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, and 37 species of reptiles.

The Asiatic lion, leopard, jungle cat, hyena, jackal, and mongoose are among the carnivores spotted in the park. Meanwhile, the main herbivores in the park include chital, nilgai, sambar, four-horned antelope, and chinkara. Visitors can easily spot chital, sambar, peacocks, and monkeys during the safari.

Our journey to Sasan Gir began with a fifteen hours overnight train journey from Mumbai. On 22ⁿᵈ February 2019, we reached Junagadh at 1300 hrs. After enjoying a delicious lunch at one of the famous Gujarati thali restaurants near the railway station, we headed towards Sasan Gir in a private cab. The smooth one and a half hour's drive from Junagadh to Sassan Gir was through scenic routes.

We stayed at Amidhara Resort, which is surrounded by forests and farms. As the resort is on the outskirts of the forest and is just two km from the Gir safari booking office, it is known to have lions and leopards occasionally roaming around the property. Although we didn't spot lions or leopards around the resort during our stay, we were amazed to see a herd of chitals and sambar from our room window. At night, we went to the terrace and saw the forest under the full moon, which looked eerie yet enchanting.

First safari

On the morning of 23ʳᵈ February 2019, we were all set for our first safari. We arrived at the safari booking office by 0530 hrs, eagerly awaiting an exciting adventure. Since I had already booked our tickets online, I just needed to verify the details at the counter and take care of the gypsy and guide charges. While I headed to the reception counter, Sheetal stayed in the safari gypsy. The place was still pretty dark, and being in a forest area, the lighting wasn't great. After completing the necessary formalities, I made my way back to our safari vehicle, where Sheetal was waiting for me with anticipation. She told me she had heard a lion roar nearby while she was waiting alone in the gypsy. It gave her quite a scare!

Engrossed in conversation, we were soon joined by our driver and guide. The guide seemed curious about our conversation, so we shared Sheetal's experience. To our surprise, he casually mentioned that it's common for lions to come out of the forest and hang around the reception area. We joked that he made it sound like lions were just as common as cows wandering the streets!

There was a small café near the reception, so we grabbed a quick bite before entering the forest at 0620 hrs. We eagerly ventured into the dark and mystical forest that had captivated us the night before from our resort's terrace. The early morning hours were shrouded in complete darkness, making spotting even chitals or sambars impossible. In the darkness, all we could hear was the buzzing of insects and the cheerful songs of birds. Although we held a glimmer of hope to catch a glimpse of hyenas, unfortunately, our wish remained unfulfilled. Nevertheless, we continued our journey, delving even deeper into the heart of the forest.

After driving for around 30 minutes, we arrived at the Kamaleshwar dam watchtower. We could step out of our vehicles at the dam and climb the tower.

We saw Maldhari settlement from the watchtower. Known for their close connection with nature and their traditional way of life, the Maldharis are primarily cattle herders and depend on the land for their sustenance. Their harmonious coexistence with the wildlife in the Gir forest is a testament to their deep-rooted bond with the environment.

Our guide told us that we could spot crocodiles and even lions in the water body! Although we didn't see any crocodiles or lions, we were rewarded with the sight of a kite gracefully resting on a tree.

I had previously visited Kamleshwar dam during an afternoon safari in 2012 and was surprised to find that the place looked exactly the same after seven years. It's quite a contrast from the ever-changing city landscapes we're used to.

We waited for the sunrise before moving on from this beautiful location. Suddenly, a jackal came running towards our vehicle, scared and running away from something.

Jackal as seen in Gir National Park

In just a few minutes, we saw that 'something.' A huge lioness was sitting just along the road. The lioness wasn't bothered by our presence and soon came very close to us. She circled our vehicle and sat next to it. It was a breathtaking experience. Since she was sitting beside our gypsy, our driver couldn't move it. While we were waiting for her to leave, we clicked many pictures. Finally, after ten minutes, she moved, and we left the spot. Later, we couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if she had hopped into our vehicle. We had seen a few videos of cheetahs doing that during African safaris.

After experiencing the incredible close encounter, we were amazed to spot a lion just a few meters away from the path. We noticed a forest official on a bike not far from the lion. Our guide explained that these officials regularly monitor the lions, checking for any visible injuries and ensuring their well-being.

It was like a stroke of luck when the lion crossed the road and started heading towards us. Our guide advised us to keep our voices down and avoid making sudden movements. This lion, though old-looking, was larger than the lioness we saw in our previous encounter.

Soon we had a brief sighting of another lioness and realized the lion was approaching her. As the lion approached her, he began to roar. Even our guide was thrilled by these fantastic sightings. He mentioned that it had been quite some time since he last saw a lion and a lioness during a safari trip.

Indian lions have adapted to a solitary lifestyle, unlike African lions who are known for forming big groups called prides. This difference can be explained by several factors, like their habitat and the availability of prey.

African lions can be found in a variety of habitats across Africa, such as grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands. These habitats generally have more space and a higher number of prey, like zebras and wildebeests, which can sustain larger pride groups. On the other hand, the Gir forest, where Indian lions reside, is a relatively small and fragmented habitat. This limits the availability of suitable territories and resources for multiple prides. Indian lions mainly rely on smaller prey species, such as deer and antelope, which may not provide enough resources to support large pride groups.

However, it's important to note that there are exceptions, and there have been instances where a few male lions and multiple female lionesses were spotted together, forming a larger pride.

Our safari came to an end at 0900 hrs after some incredible sightings of the King and Queen of the forest. It was an overwhelming experience for us. Such close encounters are rare, making it even more special to witness them on our very first safari. In comparison, my previous safari in 2012 was rather boring, with sightings limited to chitals, sambars, and monkeys. Therefore, this safari felt like a remarkable upgrade!

Second safari

Our afternoon safari was on the same day. After completing the necessary formalities, we embarked on the afternoon safari at 1520 hrs. The scorching heat and the dusty terrain made the safari even more adventurous. As we continued our safari, we encountered watering holes built by the forest department for animals. We were told that the chances of spotting lions, leopards, and other animals around these watering holes are high during afternoon safaris.

Perfectly camouflaged crocodiles as seen in Gir National Park

Our safari took us on a different path than the morning one. While crossing a stream, we were in for a delightful surprise - two young crocodiles, perfectly camouflaged in the muddy terrain. While we had previously seen crocodiles in captivity, witnessing them in their natural habitat was an entirely new experience for us. Surprisingly, their behavior remained consistent. Motionless and as immovable as stones, they displayed a remarkable stillness even in the wild.

As we crossed the stream, we came across a lioness sleeping peacefully under a tree approximately thirty meters away. Her cubs were playing around her. Suddenly, one of them began to approach us with its characteristic stalking gait—a slow and stealthy walk commonly seen in cats. Before the cub could take a few more steps, the lioness woke up, and the cub sat down. It looked like the lioness scolded the cub. We closely watched their activities through our binoculars, noticing their behavior that resembled that of playful kittens. Our guide told us that spotting cubs on a safari is rare. We felt privileged to witness them in their natural habitat.

Lioness and her cub sleeping peacefully as seen in Gir National Park

On our way out of the forest, we saw another lioness and her cub sleeping under a tree, with a group of forest rangers peacefully eating their lunch just fifty meters away. It was incredible to see how the animals and humans coexist in such close proximity.

The safari ended at 1800 hrs, and we returned to our resort at 1815 hrs, thrilled and awestruck at the majesty and beauty of the wildlife we had witnessed. We felt fortunate to have seen a lion, lioness, and cubs all in one day, and it was an experience that will stay with us for a lifetime.

Pro tips:

  1. Gujrathi thali places near Junagadh station – The Lotus restaurant, The Janta Lodge, Petals Restaurant or Geeta Lodge

  2. Ola/Uber services are not available in Junagadh, One way AC cab till Sasan Gir can be booked at Rs. 2,000-3000. To book in advance, call Manoj - +916352012621

  3. At Sasan Gir always prefer to stay near Sinh Sadan as there is no local transportation available

  4. It's usually very hot and dusty in the afternoon, it is advisable to carry a cap and scarf for afternoon safari


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