Gir with Mr. Leopard Lucky

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Gujarat Reverie

Rolling Hills, undulating terrain, eight perennial rivers, interspersed with innumerable streams, roars of lions and their echoes reverberating in the valleys, alarm calls of deer and langoors, birds of prey gliding in the sky, elusive leopards lurking in thickets – all these make Gir, a truly action packed forest.

Sasan-Gir Forest

Sasan-Gir Forest


27th December 2008 – Tinkoo bhai, the driver of our Gypsy, whom I introduced in my previous post, arrived on time at Anil Farm House. He was accompanied by Mohan bhai, our guide on that day.

One of the hotel staff members introduced Mohan bhai to us as “Mr Leopard Lucky”. The very first feelings were not positive. I was unsure whether it was sweet-talk to please Mohan bhai or an overstatement to please us or that person was rubbing salt on our wounds of longstanding desire of spotting a wild cat in the wilds. Brushing aside my negative emotions and considering positively I assumed that probably we were accompanied by a knowledgeable Guide. Mild-mannered Mohan bhai smilingly clarified that in recent safaris he had been lucky in spotting leopards several times.

After a pause he started to share his almost fatal encounter with a leopard. One night he and his maternal uncle were having dinner in his house. Suddenly, they heard loud cries of buffaloes from the backyard. As they rushed out, they saw a leopard on the back of a buffalo. They tried to scare it; it backtracked initially and then suddenly attacked his uncle. When Mohan bhai tried to save his uncle, it turned, attacked him and then ran away; leaving behind both of them seriously injured.

That near fatal encounter gave mystical powers to Mohan bhai. According to Mohan bhai, after that incident, he was fortunate in spotting leopards in several safaris.

I was wondering, today, whether we will be able to break our jinx of not spotting a wild cat so far.

Leopard is an elusive wild cat. It quite often has conflicts with human beings. After India became an independent country, a few naturalists fought for the cause of lions and requested the Government for their protection and conservation. But the same people felt that killing leopard was justified. Therefore, in Gir, killing lions was banned much earlier than killing leopards.

As we entered the jungle, Mohan bhai pointed towards some trees at the entrance and told us that they were sandalwood. I took a lungful of air to smell the fragrance. There was none. I was informed that those trees were planted only a few years ago and a sandalwood tree gives out fragrance only after around 20 years. I was cautioned that the smell of the wood is very intoxicating and at that time that one may even find snakes wrapped around the trees.

Herd of Spotted Deer in Sasan Gir

Herd of Spotted Deer in Sasan Gir

We continued moving deep inside the jungle but even then we crossed human settlements. It puzzled me. I enquired, were we in the core area of the jungle or at the periphery, about to enter the core. I was told that indeed we were in the core area and those were Maldhari settlements. The literal meaning of the word Maaldhari is the keeper of cattle; “Maal” refers to the cattle and “Dhaari” means the keeper. Their settlements are called nesses.

A Maldhari Settlement, Sasan-Gir

A Maldhari Settlement, Sasan-Gir

Gir has an interesting balance between humans and the jungle. It is an exemplary jungle where human beings and wild cats share a symbiotic relationship with the jungle and also with each other. From times immemorial, Maldharis are an integral part of the Gir ecosystem. Nobody can dream of Gir forest without a Maldhari leading a herd of buffaloes with a long bamboo stick in his hand.

A Maldhari in SasanGir forest with his herd of Cattle

A Maldhari in SasanGir forest with his herd of Cattle

Maldharis have a strong belief that they have a direct lineage to Lord Krishna. They adopted vegetarianism under the influence of Ashoka and are still strict vegetarians. They lead a nomadic life and are expert in making indigenous medicines from the herbs and the fruits found in the forest.

I am always concerned about greedy human beings sharing space with rare-exotic wild animals.

I asked about any possibility of Maldharis helping poachers. I was told that it has never happened. In reality Maldharis are the Government’s Eyes and the Ears to prevent poaching. It is commendable as the Maldharis continue to assist the Government inspite of a large number of their cattle falling prey to the marauding lions. In recent years many Maldhari families have been relocated outside Gir and those who remain inside are paid compensation by Government for the inevitable loss of buffaloes incurred by them.

Having said that, it is a common saying in the Gir, that where there is a Maldhari, probability of spotting a big cat is very less. They do guard their live stock with zeal. Maldharis usually scare the wild cats away, by hurling stones at them. This is a reason that the fearless lions of Gir allow humans, esp. the khaki uniform clad rangers, to come very close but they intelligently avoid the white–dressed Maldharis.

Very soon we were passing through an open area. Our driver suddenly stopped the Gypsy. In a hushed voice Mohan bhai drew our attention to the screeches of langoors and suggested that a leopard could be around. He then signaled us to remain silent. Fully vigilant and alert with heightened sensory acuity we waited patiently. A few vehicles were also waiting at some distance. After waiting for around fifteen minutes the vehicles at the front lost patience and left.

Sasan Gir (photo Courtesy: Poonam Ranka)

We were standing silently inside our Gypsy, keeping a close watch for the slightest movement within the vegetation. Slowly the frequency of langoors’ shrieks started to decrease. After some time, there was a sound of a stone hitting a bush. It seemed that sensing danger; some Maldhari in the vicinity had thrown a stone to scare the wild cat.

Our guide hinted that if a leopard was around, it may actually run across the path behind our Gypsy. It didn’t. It appeared that the leopard moved in some other direction. We missed the big cat :-(, I am convinced that it had been around.

We were not in a hurry. By now, we were well ensconced in the jungle ambience. Under the influence of the pacified sun, the perfect calmness of the jungle was having its mesmerizing effect on us. We remained standing in our Gypsy, enjoying the pleasant breeze, keenly looking in all directions and listening to the music of the silent jungle. My younger kid was surprised to notice that none of the adults was speaking. He thought that it was his turn to speak and he started to sing gibberish; it blended perfectly well with the melody of the jungle symphony.

Suddenly, we started to hear another call. This time the call was of a barking deer from opposite direction. And then all of a sudden it was there. We could see a full-grown leopard at some distance. Initially it was lurking in the thicket as if planning to attack someone. Later on it started to walk grace fully and graciously lost interest in its prey.

Are you able to Spot it!

Are you able to Spot it!

Leopard pix at ISO speed 800

Leopard pix at ISO speed 800

Leopard Moving away, Sasan Gir

Leopard Moving away, Sasan Gir

We were spellbound. It was for the first time that we had spotted a wild cat, a leopard, and that too for almost fifteen to twenty minutes. Then, the guide sought our permission to move the vehicle closer. He cautioned us that it could alert the leopard. It could then run either from the front of our Gypsy or vanish into the jungle. We took the chance, and as per Murphy’s Law, it moved in opposite direction and disappeared in the jungle 🙁

Mohan bhai is really “Leopard Lucky”. Was it a sheer luck? I attribute it more to his capabilities to make out the invisible signs, to take notice of the inaudible foot steps and to smell the presence; unique and indispensable qualities of any good jungle guide.

Mohan bhai praised us for our patience. He told us that most of the time tourists become very impatient. They think that they are being fooled and so usually force the drivers to move. I and Jaishree, were happy. As parents we want that our kids enjoy jungles and appreciate the bounty of treasures and surprises the nature has for inquisitive minds. We firmly believe in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through man, in spite of real sorrows, Nature says, he is my creation and maugre all his impertinent griefs he shall be glad with me.” In his excitement Rachit too was silent for a long time and was enjoying the safari to the fullest. In the end we all were rewarded with a visual feast for a good duration.

Our navigators told us that their first target was met. They had planned to target a leopard in the beginning and a lion later.

The rugged hilly terrain of the Gir, forms the catchments areas of important rivers like Hiran, Shingoda, machhundri, datardi, raval and shetrunji. The diversity of food resulted in flourishing diversity of animals and bird species.

A river flowing through Sasan Gir

A river flowing through Sasan Gir

At one place we noticed a pair of chubby mongoose frolicking and moving towards a bank of a river joyfully.

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle

As we moved further, we also spotted hawks of several types – the crested serpent eagle, the hawk eagle and the sparrow hawk. The crested serpent eagle nests in treetops near fresh water. Its nests are constructed with sticks & contain not more than a single egg at a time.

The Sparrow Hawk

The Sparrow Hawk

Sparrow Hawk also known as shikra, on the other hand is a small bird of prey. Its hunting technique mainly involves surprising its victims as it flies from hidden perch or flicks over a bush to catch its prey unaware.

At certain places I noticed Mohan Bhai quickly getting down from the Gypsy to pick the namkeen and biscuit pouches thrown in the jungle by the uncaring and callous tourists. Mohan bhai on such occasions explained us that he was doing so as the forest warden was on inspection and he wanted to avoid the warden suspecting us. I think it was an excuse. He was doing it because he loved his jungles and understood the importance of not making it a garbage dump. It takes guts to remain honest among dishonest, sadly on many such occasions, we find the honest giving an ‘explanation’ for their honesty.

In both the safaris we did, we could not locate the pride of the Gir, the Asiatic Lion. Though we enjoyed both the safaris, we liked the evening safari more than the morning one. In the evening safari the temperature shifted from hot to pleasant. It perfectly symbolized my philosophy of an ideal life, when tough and harsh young life, a life full of struggles in youth leads to pleasant, calm old age.

A Vulture in Gir

A Vulture in Gir

We ended the safari with the sightings of vultures, so synonymous with the end. These scavenging birds, feeding mostly on the carcasses of dead animals has seen its population decline by 95%. This decline is mainly due to diclofenac – a veterinary drug. Diclofenac was widely used in India as an anti-inflammatory pain relief drug for domestic animals, especially cattle. Vultures that eat the carcasses of cattle treated with this medicine die of kidney failure within a few days. Diclofenac has been banned in the country, but Environmentalists suspect that many veterinarians still use it.

As a kid, I always associated the end of battles/wars with the hordes of vultures feasting on dead and the severely wounded soldiers. I used to shudder at such thoughts; it always left me wondering about the futility of wars and how human lives were lost on things that were non-issues for most of those engaging in them.

Glowing Sasan Gir

Glowing Sasan Gir

As sun moved further westward the jungle started to glow as gold. We were part of an amazingly beautiful experience. Sun was peeping surreptitiously from the trees and leaves.

Sunset at Sasan Gir

Sunset at Sasan Gir

As we came out of the jungle, the setting sun was at its creative best as I have never seen before. It was presenting before us an extremely beautiful panorama. The beautiful shades of crimson, orange and yellow were splashed on the canvas, but these colors were not limited to the setting sun’s preferred west corner but were splattered across a huge semicircle ranging from extreme north to extreme south almost 180 degree. This was definitely an unusual view for me. I wish I had a photograph to share.

Tinkoo bhai on extreme right and Mohan bhai on extreme left

Tinkoo bhai on extreme right and Mohan bhai on extreme left

Most of the tourists who are declined “darshan” by the Royal Asiatic lions, heads toward “Gir Interpretation Zone” or Dewaliya – a partially fenced off area of the park. The next morning, on our onward journey to Junagarh we also visited Dewaliya. It had a very well-kept and informative reception centre. Private vehicles are not allowed inside the park. Government busses take tourists around every 45 minutes.

In the short bus journey there, we passed a solitary deer, then a pair of it and finally herds of them, leading to the Royals. The Royals’ were resting at that time. Their sighting did not excite us. Those lions looked tame, docile and old, lying in the shade like street dogs. Although these lions still have to hunt their food, the limited space deer’s have to escape, is not enough to keep the prides and their pride fit. We were told that the early morning safaris are the right time to see them in action. May be seeing them in action would have created a different opinion.

Taking Nap, Asiatic Lion

Taking Nap, Asiatic Lion

Spotted Deer, Sasan Gir

Spotted Deer, Sasan Gir

One of the pleasant sights was noticing the wind-mills. The array after arrays of such windmills in Jaisalmer and a few at the Gir shows that finally as a nation we are realizing the importance of harnessing immense wind power to generate electricity. These are though functional windmills not carrying much visual charm of the old world wind-mills we had seen in Amsterdam.

Wind-mills in Sasan Gir

Wind-mills in Sasan Gir

We felt enriched with very special memories of the scenic Gir and our stay at Anil Farm House. The vehicle moved ahead on a beautiful road with trees flanking both the sides and forming a verdant canopy. We continued onwards towards Junagarh, thus bidding Adieu to the Gir segment of our trip.

Beautiful way to Junagarh

Beautiful way to Junagarh

Series Navigation<< Flora-Fauna and the history of Sasan GirLearnings of life at Gir Jungle Resort >>


Comments

  1. Manish Khamesra

    November 15, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    I would like to share some interesting excerpts from an article “The Survivors” in Indian Express on 4th Sept 2011 by Nandini Nair. She has mentioned the positive effect of the ban on diclofenac. She mentioned that the rate of decline of Oriental white backed vulture has decreased to 40 percent of the rate before the ban.

    Here I would also like to share the interesting information that the author gathered from the scientists (Dr Prakash and his wife Nikita) at the captive breeding center of vultures in Pinjore.

    “Vultures live up to 50 years, pair for life, and lay only one egg a year. To obtain more eggs, avi-cultuarlists practise double-clutching. Within 10-15 days of the bird laying its eggs, if the egg is removed, the bird, still in breeding condition, will lay again. The first egg is then encubated artificially through a painstaking process, requiring precise monitoring and intense care, while the second egg is nurtured by the parents. During the year long process, from incubation to raising the fledgling, the scientists must be careful of “imprinting”, meaning that the vulture nestling must not learn behaviour patterns from the human care-giver.

    Nerves wrack vultures and when disturbed or exposed to strangers, they expel a noxious vomit. While the stench drives away the intruders, the excretion can lead to the bird’s dehydration. With each bird eating up to 4 kg a meat a week, the menu doesn’t come cheap. “We don’t want them to throw up that food” said Dr Nikita.

    They are now planning to release the first batch of 20-25 artificially incubated birds with a wild captive bird, which will act as a guide in the wild, teaching them how to obtain food.
    This time on our visit to Jim Corbett we found a breeding center of Vultures. Good to see and hope to get positive results of all these efforts.


  2. Manish Khamesra

    November 16, 2015 at 12:05 am

    The first ever Leopard census in India conducted alongside last year’s tiger census, has put the spotted cat population at 7,910 in and around tiger habitats across the country, except the northeast.

    “There are leopards outside the areas we covered. Based on these numbers, we estimate India’s total leopard population to be in the range of 12,000 to 14,000,” said Yadvendradev V Jhala, the lead scientist of the tiger census, who presented the leopard figures at Wildlife Institute of India’s annual research seminar in Dehradun last week.

    Read more at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Finally-India-gets-a-count-of-its-leopard-numbers-12000-14000/articleshow/48850420.cms


  3. Manish Khamesra

    January 21, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    In December 2015 edition of “National Geographic Magazine” there is an interesting article by Richard Conniff. From this article I am sharing an excerpt, about the adaptability of Leopards, “Unlike most other big cats, leopards can adapt to a point. They can prey, for example, on anything from dung beetles and porcupines to a 2000 pound eland. They can make a home at 110 degree F in the Kalahari desert or at -13 degrees in Russia. They can thrive in sea-level mangrove swaps on the coast of India or at 17000 feet in the Himalaya.”

    According to the author, “Man-eating Leopard is a misnomer as children and women are its usual victims; size makes men more challenging.” But as in the case of Mohan Bhai, when they are surrounded they are not shy in attacking Men as well.


  4. Pingback: The Burning Binsar – Manish Jaishree

  5. Manish Khamesra

    December 17, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    An episode shared by Vidya Athreya in her article “Earning their spot” in Mint : She talked about an interesting observation done by Romulus Whitker while filming Leopards: 21st Century Cats. He walked upto a large male leopard feeding on a carcas, using a night vision camera but no torch. He was just 40m away from the loepard, still it simply looked at him and continued his feeding. Leopard concluded, “a human coming to him without flash light would not have observed him”. But when Romulus then went again to the same spot with a flash torch, leopard moved into a shrubbery around.

    She also provided a reason and a solution for the Leopards moving into cityscapes. According to her, it has to do with the general cleanliness of the city. The garbage dumped in a dirty city attracts pigs and dogs. These stray animals then attract leopards, hyneas, and wolves. Dogs become favourite prey for the leopards. According to her solution in keeping them away from human habitation lies in general cleanliness.

    She also stressed the fact that though these city dwelling leopards do not attack humans in general.On the other hand capturing them and then putting them in Jungle, stress them and these stressed animal is then more prone to attack a human being than the other one who has just strayed in the city.

    Below is the link of that interesting article
    http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/7qHriwh56RPhwJHpH9IpSI/Earning-the-spot.html


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