The Gir Lions: Panthera Leo Persica

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 32 No. 3, March 2012

By R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji

Lying awake, just before dawn, I heard the lions roar. In the silence of the jungle they sounded much closer than they probably were. Restless and eager to start the day, I washed and dressed in the dark and before I could finish my cup of tea, I heard Haidu's gentle greeting. Haidu, the head pugee, who would be my guide for the day, was a tracker with an almost psychic understanding of lions.

We left at dawn to escape the noisy crowds at Gir's famous `lion shows'. With our water canteens filled and a small sling bag with dry chapattis and vegetables around Haidu's neck, we set off into the scrub jungle. I had my binoculars and camera equipment with me. I have always been a keen photographer, even in the old days when jungle outings, more often than not, meant shikar.  The sun was up before we had covered two miles and all around us I could see the rugged, picturesque terrain that was home to the last remaining representatives of Panthera leo persica.

Sitting near a streambed, a clatter of hooves suddenly caused me to look in the direction of a large nilgai bull, accompanied by two cows. They probably hadn't seen us till they were quite near. I usually maintain a strict silence in the jungle, talking only in whispers when signs or signals are inadequate. A golden-backed woodpecker had set up a staccato-like scream nearby and a flurry of activity from a thick karambdi bush revealed the dull-grey form of a pea-hen followed by a brood of four or five juvenile birds. It was getting warm and perspiration streaked my dusty clothes. I had a drink of water and casually asked Haidu if he could locate `Ubhado' and `Bhelio', two lions with whom I had been acquainted during earlier visits. "Shall we take a chance?" he asked. I readily agreed. With Haidu in the lead, we now took a new route, which, to my mild consternation, betrayed no traces of lion pug-marks. Haidu, of course, was unconcerned. He walked purposefully on, occasionally checking to ensure that I followed close behind. An hour later, with the sun now fairly high in the sky, we reached a place where fallen teak leaves carpeted the floor. He stopped here, removed his shoes and proceeded alone. Moments later, he gestured to me to join him.  Following his example, I removed my shoes and traced his footsteps to where he was seated. I then knelt down beside him and there, behold, less than 30 metres in front of us were the two lions I had enquired after. They lay peacefully in the shade of a tree, oblivious of our presence. Haidu had pinpointed their resting place after having heard them roar before daybreak. This was a clear demonstration of the Gir trackers' legendary capabilities. This was the way lions used to be located years ago, before the baiting of show-lions had been introduced.

A graceful feline, bathed in morning light, strides confidently across a grassy clearing in Gir. Lionesses reach sexual maturity between 21/2 to 3 years and normally bear two or three young after a gestation period of around 116 days.
Photo: Divyabhanusinh.

A Tenuous Existence

India's first `national animal' was the lion, depicted in the Republic of India's crest, the inspiration drawn from Emperor Ashoka's pillar at Sarnath. The choice was made not because of the Iion's endangered status, but on cultural grounds. Over the years many nations, from Europe, Africa and Asia, have chosen the lion to represent them; the intended symbolism projecting the nations' and the lions' common qualities - courage, magnanimity, justice and power. Howsoever unscientific such anthropomorphic attributes may be, the fact remains that man has always held the lion in great admiration and awe.

When the British ruled the Indian subcontinent, lions were abundant throughout northern and central India, from Sind to Bengal and down to the Narmada river. Unfortunately, the animals were ruthlessly persecuted right from Mughal times and were thus steadily wiped out. Today, just over 200 Asiatic lions remain and the Gir forest of Kathiawar, Gujarat, is their last bastion.

Lord Curzon took the first step to protect these endangered lions by his refusal to shoot one, despite an invitation from the Nawab of Junagadh in whose territory most of the lions were found. Perhaps this public stance, in favour of the lions, brought home to the erstwhile rulers the predicament into which years of indiscriminate hunting had placed the lion. Ever since, the lions have received protection though sporadic poaching incidents continued. The Nawabs, of course, still invited VIPs to shoot `their' animals, but a restriction of three full-grown males per year was imposed. In any event, lion populations stabilised considerably under the mantle of Junagadh's protection.

During the devastating famine of 1899 and 1900 the prey species on which the lions survived were considerably depleted. Consequently, some reports indicate that the lions resorted to man-eating. These were bleak years for the wildlife of Kathiawar; nevertheless, the `discreet' hunting of lions by special invitees continued till after Independence. At this juncture, President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Gir and vehemently insisted that the safety of India's national animal be ensured. Despite this, on more than a few occasions, lions continued to be shot with the permission of the Rajpramukh of Saurashtra. This `privilege' was withdrawn only as recently as 1960 when the State of Gujarat was formally set up.

The first serious attempt to census the Gir lions was undertaken by the Saurashtra State Forest Department in 1950. I was a part of that census team and our organiser was none other than the well-known naturalist, M.A. WynterBlyth, (then the Principal of Rajkumar College, Rajkot). On the basis of a pug-mark tally, we concluded that there were between 219 and 227 lions in Gir. The 1936 estimates, made by the Junagadh Forest Department, had placed their number at 287 and the downward trend was alarming. (Ironically, while world attention was centered on saving the lions, the grey hornbill, locally known as `Chilotro', was quietly extirpated from the Gir forest. Killed on account of its presumed medicinal value, the bird was reintroduced into Gir in 1979.)

Not so long ago, the range of the Gir lions included extended forested tracts, totalling just over 3,800 Despite the fact that the area was unsuitable for agriculture, many different people chose to settle here and slowly the forests suffered. Nomads of the Rabari and Charan tribes, termed as `maldharis' or herdsmen, have been living in close proximity to the lions for many years. Habitat destruction coupled with the construction of irrigation tanks and extension of farmlands, eventually reduced the vital lion biome to less than 1,300 Even this reduced area was dissected by roads built in all directions to facilitate the extraction of timber. Somehow a way had to be found for man and animal to survive together and this has been the main concern of those interested in Gir, for over 30 years.

The King of the Jungle. We must ask ourselves how long he can survive if the swell of human pressure continues to chip away at his kingdom.
Photo: Divyabhanusinh.

Man and the Lion

Lions generally resent human presence. Yet strangely, in Gir, the large cats seem less scared of the maldharis than of their buffaloes who readily charge when agitated. On two occasions I actually witnessed a maldhari `whoop' his whole herd of buffaloes towards two lions who fled unceremoniously, followed by the triumphant little man waving his staff high and yodelling as loud as he could. The maldhari is a very astute judge of lion character and a pugee's perfect imitation of a goat's bleating will often make a lion pause and turn in surprise. In fact, the pugees can actually `summon' the show lions by calling repeatedly in this manner.

The maldharis are kind and hospitable folk, some of them bards and poets. Being largely vegetarians they cause no direct harm to wildlife.  They have strong family bonds and have dedicated themselves to husbandry of the famous Gir cattle and buffaloes, from whose milk they produce ghee, a refined butter. However, when the artificial feeding of lions became a practice for the purpose of lion-shows (soon after the formation of Gujarat State), lions got bold, killing livestock fearlessly. The maldharis retaliated by poisoning the lions, resulting in a steep decline in the cat population.


Gir - Last Bastion of the Asiatic Lion

An overview

Africa and India are the only countries in the world fortunate enough to house lions (Panthera leo). The Asiatic lion was once widespread, from Asia Minor and Arabia through Persia to India, but today just over 200 animals, survive tenuously in the Gir forest of Kathiawar.

The total area of the Gir Sanctuary is 1,412.13 and within it a 140.4 area has been designated as a National Park. A metre high rubble wall of over 400 km. has been constructed to keep unwanted cattle out of the park. However, animals such as nilgai, chausinga, chital and sambar, find no difficulty in bounding over the wall. Effective management plans have shown encouraging results in recent years, though a still greater effort is necessary to ensure the long term survival of the lions.

Census figures of Gir lions from 1950 to 1979 are as under:

Year of census     Method                      Lion population                         Total

                                                                Male     Female    Cubs


1950                Pug mark count           (adults  179/187)         40            219 to 227*

1955                      - do -                        141          100       49            290

1963                      - do -                         82           134       69            285 **

1968                Visual count                       60             66       51            177

1974                      - do -                         53             77       50            180

1979                      - do -                         65             82       58           205


1979 census figures for other Gir animals are as under:




Panther                                      161

Hyena                                          84

Spotted deer                            8,431

Sambar                                      760

Nilgai                                       2,036

Wild boar                                 2,365

Four horned antelope                1,042

Chinkara                                    330

Monkey                                   6,895


The following are some of the prominent animals to be found in the Gir. Their local names have been mentioned alongside in italics. Lion - Sawaj of Sinh. Untia Bagh (Gujarat); Leopard - Dipado; Jungle cat -Jungali bilado or rani bilado; Hyena - Jarakh; Wolf - Naar; Jackal - Shial; Fox - Lonkdi; Ratel - Ghor-khodio or Bootado; Civet cat - Jabadio; Mongoose - Nolio; Sambar - Sembar; Chital - Pashu or pahu and Cheetal; Nilgai - Roj or Nilgai; Fourhorned antelope - Ghuntavdo; Blackbuck - Haran; Chinkara - Kal Punchha or Chikaro; Wild boar - Dukkar or Kala Janwar or Bhund; Pangolin - Salvo; Porcupine - Shedhadi; Crocodile - Mughar; Monitor lizard - Gho; Python - Chitalo or Ajgar; Langur - Vandaro; Hare - Saslo; Star-shelled tortoise - Dhal Kachlo or Dungaral Kachlo; Chameleon - Lilo mankido. * Detailed figures showing the male/female ratio were not available.
** According to the author the census figures for 1963 are suspect.


At this time a very harmful factor revealed itself in the form of a massive influx of cattle into Gir from drought-stricken areas. This caused unprecedented destruction to the entire ecosystem. It also further encouraged the lions to become cattle-lifters and there came a stage when much of their diet was accounted for by domestic animals. This grave situation drew the attention of international biologists and in 1970 a highly qualified team (Berwick: USA, Joslyn: Canada, Hodd: Britain) arrived to study the problem under World Wildlife Fund, Project 298. The research was aided by the Smithsonian Institution, and was sponsored by the Bombay Natural History Society. I was also closely involved with the project at the time. It was observed that, during droughts, the maldharis lopped trees to sustain their herds; but the gravity of the situation was further aggravated by incessant clear felling, resulting in the maldharis becoming scapegoats for the denudation of the forest.

The Gujarat Government, realising the danger to the ecosystem and the severe economic pressures being borne by the maldharis, executed a project to demarcate and protect the Gir Sanctuary by building a one metre high rubble wall with live hedges to prevent illicit grazing. At the same time a scheme was launched to rehabilitate the maldharis to the peripheral areas. This project took excellent shape and the Gir Sanctuary was awarded the Chairman's Trophy for the best managed National Park cum Wildlife Sanctuary in India by the Indian Board for Wildlife in 1976. The dramatic progress recorded in subsequent years was clearly evident in the improved forest vegetal cover and increased wildlife numbers. Moreover, the cessation of felling combined with progressive wildlife management was of considerable benefit to the ecosystem, an outcome of the painstaking work carried out by the Gujarat State Forest Department and supported by the Centre.

But, as is so often the case with habitat management plans, solutions to one set of problems led to the creation of others. Moving the maldharis to the peripheral regions resulted in the lions following their easy prey. The government's attempt to compensate the maldharis' loss of cattle, as a result of lion predation, was somewhat negated by the fact that many kills were made away from the core areas.

Another deterrent factor to the peaceful coexistence of lion and man is the fact that the buffer areas around the main forests have increasingly come under the plough. Not only because the maldharis were re-located here, but because new settlers arrived in large numbers. Nilgai and wildboar readily take to crop land and in the process of following them, lions often come into conflict with farmers. An unfortunate state of affairs indeed. The truth is, that in the past, the maldharis never seriously complained of lion predation. They had learned to live peaceably with the great cats and were even sometimes beholden to them for the protection they afforded the simple herdsmen from roving bands of trespassers and wood-poachers.

There is need to constantly monitor the complex problems and to understand the ecology of the Gir. It is also imperative that, with all the modern facilities at our disposal, we should make a concerted effort to assess, in depth, the behaviour of the lions.

Pugee Haidu, instructing forest guards.
Photo: Dharmakumarsinhji.

The King of the Jungle

I watched fascinated from the cover of a thick bush as the lioness lay crouched below a steep river bank 30 metres away. I was struck by her patience, as she remained, watchful, in the same position for well over 20 minutes. The river formed a small pool which was frequented by a variety of game, the hoof prints of sambar, nilgai and chital could clearly be seen in the sand. Clumps of earth tossed about probably indicated that this was a favourite wallowing spot for wild boar as well. A loud piercing call punctuated the stillness of the air as a redwattled lapwing described a perfect arch in mid-flight, to settle knee-deep in the shallow water's edge. Another 15 minutes passed by slowly. It seemed likely that both the lioness and I would be disappointed. The jungle seemed particularly lifeless; the only creature that had come to drink was a long-tailed mongoose; its ferret eyes constantly darting about while it slaked its thirst.

My patience exhausted at the end of an hour, I quietly withdrew from the scene, leaving the lioness to her fate. I often wonder whether she was able to make a kill that day. In any event, the drama of hunter and hunted which has taken place ceaselessly since pre-history has begun to pale in the face of man's rabid assault on habitats of all descriptions.  And only very determined efforts by conservationists have enabled forests like Gir to remain relatively whole.

The behaviour of Gir lions is somewhat different to that of their African counterparts. In the rugged terrain of Gir, lions have difficulty in sighting their prey from a distance, especially in a canopy of forest. They therefore, take full advantage of ravines, bushes, boulders, logs and grass to stalk and ambush their prey.

In the teak habitat of Gir, during the dry, hot season, lions find it difficult to stalk their prey because of the large, crispy, dry leaves which crackle underfoot. At this time the lions generally prefer to follow well-worn paths and dusty roads. Those prey species, habituated to lie up under shady trees or bushes are relatively safe, as the lions' concentration is focussed mainly on the gregarious ungulates who betray themselves by sound or movement. Hunting lions make full use of wind direction. Preferring to hunt upwind, they listen and even sniff the air for traces of scent of their prey. Group hunting, using the strategy of encircling the prey, no doubt makes for easier kills. However, owing to the well-wooded terrain of Gir, hunting in large prides is neither easy nor suitable. Together the lions would be spotted by innumerable birds and mammals who would raise an alarm and thus warn away prospective prey.

The ideal hunting combination of the Gir lion is in pairs; known locally as `Belad', such a pair often consists of two males. Small prides may form hunting units but these normally roam the more open, grassy hills or flat scrub-lands. Solitary well-maned lions are an uncommon sight in the Gir unless an old male has been driven out of a pride. One such animal was `Govinda' whose tail tuft had been severed in combat and who, in his last days, had been driven out of his territory by younger lions. A fine, black and tawny-maned beast, Govinda, unlike most loners, had an even disposition and he thrilled visitors by allowing them to approach him at close quarters on foot. Another fine lion `Teelio', from whose photograph a postage stamp was made, could be identified by an old scar close to his eye. Earlier, before the lion-shows, regular visitors to Gir had learned to recognise `Champlo', a magnificent specimen, from his perceptible limp. But it was not always possible to sight these handsome creatures and one had to resort to using blinds or machans, and even then the lions were suspicious of any unfamiliar sound or smell. This `wild' behaviour of the lions was infinitely preferable to the `tame' conduct of today's show-lions, a fact that was strongly remarked upon by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when she visited Gir in 1981.

The lion you see today at Gir is a far cry from the tall, heavy, woolly-maned animal that roamed the plains of North India centuries ago. He is a stockier beast, adapted to climbing the steep, rugged, Gir hills and capable of swift attacks from short distances. Moreover, the mild winters of Kathiawar no longer compel him to grow the thick underwool or hoary belly fringe once so characteristic of this sub-species. All males develop manes though some may be scantier than others. (The report of one Captain Smee, that the Gujarat lion is maneless cannot be accepted.) Two types of Gir lions are known to local people, the Gadhio a dark-maned robust animal and the Welio a light-maned longish animal. The manes of African lions are generally more prominent but one very visible difference between the two, is the larger elbow and tail tufts of the Gir-Asiatic species. It is entirely possible that these characteristics may eventually be sufficient to establish the Gir lion as a new race.

It was mooted at one time that competition from leopards endangered the well-being of lions by depleting their food stock. What a mistaken notion! Yes, the leopard's range overlaps, but his habits are considerably different. A solitary, nocturnal hunter, the leopard preys on the smaller game such as four-horned antelope, pig, porcupine, langur, hare, jackal, pea-fowl and reptiles in addition to rodents, pariah dogs, poultry and goats. Only very occasionally will he kill the larger game on which the lion is dependent. In any case, panthers generally inhabit the scrub, euphorbia and grassland hills closer to habitation. They are also suited to steep, rocky terrain into which lions seldom venture. On the very rare occasions that the two do confront each other, the leopard will submit to the larger and stronger lion. I have, in fact, evidence of a lion killing a panther, the fight being a totally one-sided affair. All jungles are intricate ecosystems.  They require scientific management in which unnecessary human interference must be prevented, so as to allow the animals to strike their own balance. If my fifty years in Indian jungles have taught me anything it is this very basic fact.

In the Gir, fortunately for lions, there is no competition from wild dogs, who hunt in very efficient packs elsewhere and are more than a match for any large cat.

There has been much speculation about whether the lion or the tiger were once in conflict and if so, as to which would have been the victor in the event of a clash. The truth is that lions and tigers have such vastly differing habits that the likelihood of their ever coming into conflict would have been slim indeed. The tiger prefers leafy, shaded forest cover and is intolerant of heat. He will lie submerged in a jungle pool or river to cool his body when the heat gets unbearable. The lion on the other hand, can stand intense heat and at best will seek refuge under the shade of a stunted tree or large clump of euphorbia if the sun gets uncomfortably strong. The lion is also partial to dusty, dry country, (he often enjoys `dust-baths') which the tiger would avoid. To my mind the reason why tigers have a wider distribution than lions has less to do with their interspecific relationship than with the fact that lions, being social animals, provided easy targets for hunters' guns and were thus wiped out very easily by indiscriminate killing.

The practice of baiting for `lion-shows' has been criticised by naturalists as it has affected the natural behaviour of the Gir lions. Photo: Dharmakumarsinhji.

There are two wildlife projects, pertaining to lions, currently being implemented in Kathiawar. One attempts to re-locate some of the Gir lions to another 200 forest block in the Barda Hills in western Kathiawar. The reasoning, that all our eggs should not remain in one basket, cannot be faulted, but great care will have to be taken to ensure that the environment of the new site is perfectly suited to carnivores. There must be sufficient buffer stocks of wild game for instance, and from the very onset, human interference should be restricted to the minimum. The second project, the creation of a lion safari park close to Sasan Gir is, in my opinion, ill-conceived. Why pen lions for visitors when they can be allowed the opportunity of seeing them in their glory, free and wild? A safari park at Gir would be justified only in the unfortunate likelihood of the wild lions becoming extinct!

Admittedly, today's tourists are rushed for time and the staged shows have enabled many to photograph and watch them at close range, but I feel that audio-visual orientation programmes could easily educate visitors to appreciate the thrill of watching animals in their natural, undisturbed state.

Gir is spectacular from December to March when it is cool and the flame of the forest is in bloom. Wildlife sightings would, of course, be better in summer when most water courses dry up. With the first few showers the Gir forests turn verdant, stimulating the ubiquitous magpie robin to burst into full song, as do many other birds, thus creating a chorus of avian music. This symphony, of bird and animal sounds, is what makes the land of the lion so charming. Yet, without Panthera leo, how diminished would be the attraction. For the sake of us all, I hope the Gir National Park and Sanctuary can meet the imposing challenge of ensuring the vital safety of the Gir ecosystem and the peaceful co-existence of maldharis, lions and tourists. This was the basic purpose of establishing the park and on its success will depend the future of the last Asiatic lions.

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