The Last Refuge – A story of the Asiatic Lions at the Gir Forest

Sterculia at Gir – Dr. Yashpal Singh

The Gir Forest is one of the largest compact tracts of dry deciduous forests spread over about 1400 sq. kms. and surrounded by a peripheral forest of about 470 sq.kms. It was notified as a sanctuary in 1964 and part of the sanctuary, a national park in 1975.

It has become a very stable  ecosystem with tremendous regeneration and self sustaining capacities due to a rich diversity of flora and fauna.

The forest has the highest density of top carnivores and is home to the only living population of the Asiatic Lion.

The catchment area of 07 major rivers, the forest is wild and beautiful.

Deeply camouflaged in the forest our attention was drawn to this movement in the bush nearby. A rough scaled sand boa was trying to ingest its prey. Non poisonous, it kills the prey by constriction. Once it bites, it may be difficult to secure a release. Closely resembling a species of python, these snakes are also called baby pythons and have been extensively killed for their skins in the past. The Boas do not lay eggs but are live bearing. This is in contrast to the pythons which lay eggs. Snakes are generally very vulnerable during this process. We could film this from just about five feet.

The Grey mongoose is a slender carnivore found in the area. With a wide prey base it often kills and eats venomous snakes like the cobras.  In an encounter, it maytake the snake in a headlong attack and with great agility or by fluffing up its body to evade bites exhaust the snake, seize it by the head, crack the skull and eat the head with the venom gland. It is less sensitive to injected snake poison if bitten, but unlike common belief, the immunity is not absolute. Ingested snake poison is harmless to the mongoose.

Mongooses also follow their prey by scent and trail them to their burrows. They would then enter the burrow and dig their prey out.

The swamp deer is the largest member of the deer family. After the domestic cattle which constituted over 75% of the lions diet some years back, the spotted and the swamp deer are important prey species for the lions and leopards of Gir.

The Nilgai or the Blue Bull is the largest antelope found in the Gir Forest. Although well distributed in the plains of north India, it is rarely found in south India. They are the earliest known ruminants and characterized by their graceful built. Females are much smaller than the males and the young bulls and cows are tawny in color.

The adult male has a coarse iron grey coat and stout conical horns. They have a habit of depositing their droppings at the same place and can also live without water for a long time.

Speed is its greatest asset. It would take a good horse to catch up a bull. It is a notorious crop raider but in spite of this it is never killed as the Hindus regard it as sacred. It also contributes to the Lions diet.

Gir is a bird watchers paradise. Resident species like egrets, cormorants, darters, storks and ibises are found in large numbers.

Darters have narrow pointed beaks for spearing fish. The thin long snake like neck makes them known as the snake bird also.

It was in its breeding plumage.

A medium sized wader with long legs, the lapwing lays its eggs in the ground and protects them with great care.

The Kamleshwar dam is an oasis inside the forest. It also harbors one of the largest wild populations of marsh crocodiles in India. Believed to be about 200 million years old, the crocodiles are vulnerable and included in the I.U.C.N. red list. Sex in crocodiles, like in tortoises, is determined by the temperatures at which eggs hatch. Males are produced around 31.6 degrees Celsius and females at slightly higher or lower temperatures.

The only golden backed wood pecker with a black throat, this black rumped flame back hops from tree to tree. Feeding mainly on insects and grub taken from the bark of trees, it keeps the tree healthy by cleaning it of insect infestations. It has a strong conical chisel like beak and a very sticky tongue for extracting its prey. The brain and the eyes have evolved to protect against the shocks of constant drumming and flying debris.

Gir also boasts of a wide variety of Raptors. Kites, Harriers, Hawks and eagles.

The serpent eagles are largely forest raptors specialized in preying upon snakes and other reptiles.

The forest is preparing itself for spring. The Langur monkeys have raised a family. From the time of its birth the baby langur clings to its mother’s body. Apes and monkeys suckle the young for a long time. The change from milk to solid food is gradual. The mothers do not gather food for their young. They have to learn by starting to nibble themselves. The langurs are enjoying the fresh buds while dropping some to the floor where the ungulates would merrily enjoy the feast. The relationship is very special. The langurs from their vantage positions generate a guttural alarm if they spot a predator. This serves as a warning to the animals below. The spotted and the swamp deer also produce low pitched distinct alarm calls on spotting predators on the prowl. This puts the other animals on alert.

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