Tranquil and (mercifully) distinctly untouristy, this rugged and undulating park in the western corner of India, incorporating the picturesque Gir Forest, is known the world over for the Asiatic Lion (panthera leo persica). It’s the only place in India where this majestic animal has survived in the wilds, having been driven to extinction in the rest of the country since the late 19th century, thanks to a combination of hunts (the rapacious British hunters had a particular fancy for the species), poaching and rampant tree felling. It being a rare species, an encounter with the Asiatic Lion makes for an unforgettable experience.
The park, formerly the exclusive reserve of the princely state of Junagadh, was established as a sanctuary in 1969 and a national park in 1980, to provide refuge to the Asiatic Lion and its habitat. In fact, Junagadh’s rulers played a large part in helping save the endangered species. Bucking the trend over much of India, where the numbers of wildlife species have shown a depressingly downward trend, the population of lions has increased since Gir was set up, from under 200 to well above 300. A conservation success story if ever there was one.
Recently, due to dwindling forest cover outside the reserve, the Maldhari villagers, itinerant breeders of cattle, have been forced to seek for firewood inside the sanctuary, thus encroaching upon the lions’ territory. Shortage of space and resources – for both the lions and villagers – continues to be a challenge for the park authorities.
The landscape here is dominated by scrub, with forests (dry deciduous), rolling savannah grasslands and rocky gorges also featuring. The sanctuary has seven rivers flowing through it, alongside four reservoirs, providing a vital water source in what is largely dry terrain.
The summer months are best for sighting the Asiatic Lion (Gir is closed from mid-June to mid-October); weather-wise, December through to April is the ideal time to visit the park.
Flora and Fauna
There are estimated to be 350 Asiatic Lions within the national park, which is also home to around 200 panthers. The best time to spot the lions is early in the morning. Altogether, there are more than 30 species of mammals, including sloth bears, wild boar, foxes, hyenas, jackals, Indian palm civets, deer (sambar, chital), chausingha, nilgai and chinkara (gazelles), besides peacocks, marsh crocodiles (you can come across crocs bathing in the Kamleshwar Dam, on the River Hiran) and snakes (pythons, cobras).
Gir is a delight for the birder with over 200 species of avifauna, among them different species of owl and vultures, plovers, redshanks, jacanas, eagles (crested serpent, crested hawk, Bonelli’s), pygmy woodpeckers, Indian pittas, shrikes, green pigeons, black-headed orioles and crested treeswifts.
How to reach
Gir National Park is 60km to the southeast of Junagadh and 45km to the northeast of Veraval. From both towns (via Visavadar from Junagadh), there are buses and trains to Sasan Gir, the nearest access to the sanctuary. The railhead closest to the sanctuary is Sasan Gir (meter-gauge line), with steam trains plying to Veraval twice a day and to Junagadh once daily.