The trip to Kanha began with two tragic incidents – a “chara-cutter” (a Forest Department employee who takes care of the Forest Department elephants) was charged at and killed by a tigress while a Forest Department elephant died of natural causes. Parts of the Park were sealed off to tourists as the tigress which had three one-month old cubs suddenly decided not to let anything or anyone into her territory. This meant that my itinerary changed. Again.
From the cold and moist deciduous forests of Kanha, I traveled west to that eerie salt-impregnated desert – the Little Rann of Kutch that is the breeding ground for countless flamingoes and home to the Asiatic wild ass. The harsh sun and no shade left me with a bad case of sunburn on the lips (I had not planned to go the Rann and so had no sunscreen or lip salve). Forced to leave the Rann, I decided to go to Velavadar, home to the blackbuck and the roosting ground for the Pallid Harrier.
It was a hectic two weeks of continuous traveling, of early mornings, exhausting forays into the forest and back, but the experiences left me eager to go back and explore more , and t record as much as I could on camera. There was also this realization that there is still so much more to see and so much more to explore in India alone and so little time – this is compounded by the fact that quite a few of the species which can be seen with some difficulty in the wild now might be extinct over the next 5 years.
Sasan Gir Sanctuary and National Park – 26 November 2007 to 29 November 2007.
Day 1 – 26th November 2007
26 November 2007 was the first day of my ‘n’th trip to Gir, where I was going after a gap of over 2 years. After reading reports of lions dying by falling into open wells and being run over by trains, I was not too optimistic about lion sightings – but luckily I was proved wrong. I saw lions / lionesses on every trip I took inside the park. I took 6 rounds (each round of an average duration of 3 hours) in the park and everytime I thought that I have been too lucky, the sightings in the next round would surpass the previous one.
On the evening of the 26th, we were led inside the jungle through the undergrowth by the forest “beat guards” (Forest Department personnel who patrol the park) to where two young male lions were lazing around by a pond – the light was not too good for photography and the lions were a bit too far – around 40 meters. But it was a good beginning.
Day 2 – 27th November 2007
The morning of 27th was far better. Again after driving around in a jeep in the morning (and photographing a spotted owlet which seemed to pose for the camera), we again walked around 500 meters into the undergrowth with me carting my heavy lens and one of the guides carrying my tripod for a close-up encounter with the same lions – who had happened to kill a chital stag during the night and seemed to be resting after a sumptuous meal.
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II , Canon 600 mm f4 lens with 1.4X converter at f-8 and 1/250 sec with a -1/3 exposure compensation
This time round the lions were much closer to us at around 15 meters. While one kept a close watch on our movements, the other continued to laze around, belly up, not in the least bit worried about our presence. There is something about the lion which makes you feel that you are in the presence of royalty – it could be the apparent disregard which they show to us humans, the latent power which they radiate or the mane surrounding their head – but whatever it is, it leaves you with a feeling of being privileged to be in their presence.
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, Canon 600mm f4 lens at f-5.6 and 1/100 sec
It was very late in the afternoon when we met a beat guard who said that there was a lioness with her cubs, which were hidden inside the undergrowth. Walking through the dense scramble of bushes and trees was not much of a deterrent if I was to get photographs of a lioness with her cubs. So we walked another 500 meters. Just as I got my first glimpse of the lioness and two of her cubs, she moved her head ever so slightly, which sent the cubs scurrying into the undergrowth by the time we came to where they had been.
We spent around 15 minutes with the lioness, which was around 30 meters away from us in fast fading light. She didn’t seemed to be bothered by our presence, but kept a constant vigil on us I left this young and beautiful creature wishing that I could have seen her with her cubs.
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II , Canon 600 mm f4 lens at f-4 and 1/60th sec
Day 3 – 28 November 2007
The morning of Day 3 began with our jeep driver complaining that in the middle of the night, a lion killed his buffalo, which had wandered into the forest to graze. In Gir, lions killing cattle is fairly common. These livestock belong to the tribal community called “Maldharis” who live inside the jungle and rear them for milk. Whenever an animal is killed, the Government compensates the owner based on a formula which includes the age of the killed animal, etc. The villagers are used to their cattle being killed by lions and there is no noticeable ill will towards the lions. There are instances in villages, which border other national parks of tigers being poisoned when they prey on cattle. Hence government compensation and relocation of villages play a crucial part in conservation.
We had spent barely 15 minutes in the park when we sighted a Crested Serpent Eagle, which was sitting right in the open and close to the road bathed in glorious early morning light. I managed a few photographs before another photographer in a different vehicle alighted and tried to approach the eagle on foot. The eagle took flight immediately leaving me mentally cursing the guy for his stupidity.
Canon EOS1Ds Mark II, Canon 600mm f4 lens with 2X tele at f 8.0 and 1/400 sec
Canon EOS 1D MARK III, CANON 70-200 mm f2.8 L IS USM lens at 70 mm, f 6.3 and 1/60 sec
Then for the next 2 and a half hours, we saw no lions. We then decided to head back to the forest rest-house, when the incredible happened. It was past noon with the midday sun blazing down. The driver and the guide were chatting among themselves when I suddenly saw a lioness 50 meters ahead on the jungle road. She was still a cub. As I scrambled for my camera, the guide whispered “Sahib, there are more…” I looked to the left and there was a young male and a larger lioness (the mother of the juvenile lion and lioness), who were about to get on to the road too. In the photograph below, the young lioness sits alert watching a Maldhari villager (not in the frame) in the distance cycling down the road – while her brother lazily glances at us We saw them get on to the road, cross it and walk into the undergrowth. We got down from the jeep and followed them into the undergrowth – we saw the juvenile lion and lioness sitting under a tree amidst dense foliage. When we saw the mother lying down a little distance away from them, we moved closer. We spent around 20 minutes watching them before returning to the rest-house – it was probably the luckiest sighting of my life. They were the same family that had killed my jeep-driver’s buffalo. Like tigers, lions are very territorial, however they are not solitary. Hence it is usually easy to determine which lion is responsible for the killing of a particular animal.
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens, f3.2 and 1/800 sec
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, Canon 400 mm f2.8 lens, f4.0 and 1/80 sec
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, Canon 400 mm f2.8 lens, f4 and 1/80 sec
On Day 3 evening, we were taken into the core area of the National Park, which is normally closed to tourists. The beat guards had located a full-grown male lion, who was feeding on a buffalo that he had killed. In no mood to be disturbed, he started growling loudly when we approached him on foot. We stopped walking hoping that he would settle down but he walked away into the forest. We followed him in a single file, but soon the undergrowth became too thick and the forest beat guards became a bit nervous as they couldn’t see him. Also, this male lives with his brother and the prospect of two male lions in the same vicinity, both of which remained hidden, was a bit unnerving for all of us. As soon as the forest guards suggested that we head back, I agreed immediately.