Friday, 8 November 2013

Africa in Gujarat (India)

African village boy, Jamut, Gujarat (India). Photo by Chris Raven

Exploring the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, India, Simon Raven and Chris Raven find themselves face to face with the Asiatic lion in a world where man and beast walk side by side.
Photographs by Chris Raven

Rammed into the back of a jeep, Raju glances over his shoulder. “Are you ready to see lion?” he cries, offering me a beedi, a small Indian cigarette rolled from a tobacco leaf. A cool breeze fills the air as we head out of Sasan village on a 100-km night drive around the perimeter of the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. Raju, like many of the young men we’d met since arriving in Sasan is a tour guide. We’d been introduced to him by Nitin the owner of the Family House where we are staying. He’d immediately offered to take us on a night safari, and hungry to see an Asiatic lion in the wild we’d happily accepted. Making a pit-stop around midnight, Raju slurps chai (sweet tea with buffalo milk) from a saucer and excitedly explains how the lions live mainly in the national park, but at night come out to the villages looking for cattle and easy prey. His cellphone suddenly begins to buzz, and he whips it out of his pocket and proceeds to speak in Hindu to a voice on the end of the line.
  “Now you ready to see lion?” he grins, wiping his thin black moustache with the back of his hand. “For sure we see lion tonight.”
Back in the jeep we head at a swifter pace along the tarmac road that loops around the 1400sq-km park. The occasional moth or bat appears in the powerful spotlight, and small rodent’s dash out of the bushes in front of the wheels. Raju informs us there are four different species of owl in Sasan, and that he often sees them at night catching mice and rats on the road. Breaking sharply again, Raju’s assistant taps us on the shoulder and we see two adult jackals at the roadside. They stand still and proud over their kill. 


Jackal, Sasan Gir (India). Photo by Chris Raven
Home to a spectacular line-up of wildlife the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary was set-up by the provincial governor (or nawab) of Junagadh, at the beginning of the 20th century in a bid to save the Asiatic lion, whose numbers had fallen to a tragic 12 animals. Right up until the 19th Century the territory of the Asiatic lion had stretched as far east as Bihar, with the last sightings recorded near Delhi in 1834, in Bihar in 1840 and in Rajistan in 1870. A successful breeding program had seen their numbers in recent years grow from fewer than 200 in 1980 to an estimated 325 in May 2004.

Turning sharply off the road onto a narrow dirt track, the ocean of stars above our heads in the clear night sky seems suddenly more prominent, and Raju points out the large half-moon that slowly creeps over the horizon. I ask him what the orange lights are in the distance, and he explains they’re small farms. “There are 80 villages just in the national park,” Raju grins from beneath his baseball cap. “Lot’s of people living here with the lions.” I ask him if it is dangerous, but he just shrugs his shoulders and laughs. “We’re not scared of the lions. You show you’re scared, maybe you have trouble. A lion never killed any people here. The leopard is different. We’re scared of the leopard.”

Sometime in the middle of the night we arrive at a small village close to the perimeter fence on the north side of the national park. We pull up outside a house, and a young guy in his early 20’s squeezes into the back of the jeep next to Chris, who is sat quietly in the back with his camera poised. The young guy is carrying a large stick, and Raju shakes his hand and they exchange words. “A lion killed a buffalo less than one hour ago,” Raju explains, looking quite serious all of a sudden. “I think we have good chance to see lion now.”
  Feeling slightly nervous by the prospect of meeting a lion – or even a leopard, we head quickly across the fields to the area where the lion kill had occurred. Jumping out of the jeep onto the tarmac road, Raju excitedly beckons us to follow him along the edge of a field flooded in darkness. Feeling incredibly vulnerable without the protection of the metal jeep or an engine to power us away from any close encounters with ferocious animals, we walk close behind our fearless guide. “The farmer moved the buffalo away from the house. It’s in this field somewhere.” Raju pants breathlessly. Scanning the freshly ploughed earth with his torch, we walk hesitantly into the pitch blackness. Raju comes to a sudden halt and asks us to stand very still, squinting we can just about see the shape of the carcass a few metres away. “The lions haven’t found it yet. We can go see.” Standing over the large muscular buffalo collapsed in a heap on its side I admire its impressive curved horns. The flesh around its throat has been completely torn open, and the tough skin around its hide shredded and clawed away exposing the fresh red meat below. Raju takes a quick turn around the animal, scanning the ground for any signs of pad prints. We stand and observe the animal for a few seconds, as Chris fires off shots with his camera. Looking suddenly nervous Raju grabs our arms. "We must go now. The lion look for their kill, so they will come soon.” Happy to leave, we follow quickly and silently behind Raju back to the jeep.
 
Maaldharis (cattle herder) Photo by 
Chris Raven
Early the following morning, we pull up outside the gates to the north of the park. A park ranger in uniform walks over to the jeep with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Raju asks me for a couple of cigarettes and, offering them to the guard, they shake hands and we're allowed to enter the park. Driving through the gates we immediately enter a natural paradise as the world of Sasan Gir awakes in front of our very eyes; flashes of blue from the bright wings of a Kingfisher, the sound of peacocks in the thick forest either side of the road. A family of mongooses scurry into the long dry grass and large Samba deer, graceful chinkara gazelles and barking deer graze peacefully at the roadside. About ten kilometres inside the national park, Raju points out a small group of wooden houses in the forest close to the road.  “Village,” he smiles beneath his shades, “Maaldharis (cattle herders), they live in the park.” Seeing one of the local nomads at the roadside, with a large herd of buffalo, Raju waves him over and the old guy dressed in white cotton sack cloth casually makes his way over. They talk quickly, and he points towards some railway tracks running through the trees that carry trains across the national park to the southern coast of Gujarat three hours away. “He saw lion,” Raju translates, “just a few minutes ago.” Asking Raju if the man was scared, he replies that this is normal for him. The lions do not want to eat people, they want the cattle. It seems insane that this nomad would willingly herd his cattle through lion territory, but after driving around the periphery of the national park and seeing the declining areas of forest outside the sanctuary, it seems pretty clear the villagers here have little choice. Their lifestyles depend on foraging for fuel within the parks boundaries.

Returning to the guest house for lunch around midday, feeling slightly frustrated we have yet to encounter the mysterious Gir lion, we sit in the shade of the porch and chat to Nitin, the young owner of the Family House. His wife serves us Tali, a selection of rice, dhal, vegetables, chapatti, papad and curd.
  Nitin had been offering budget accommodation in his family home and jeep tours of Sasan Gir for a few years now, after meeting a couple of backpackers who had arrived in Sasan looking for cheap lodgings. Until this time he had been selling peanuts and snacks to the passing traffic, and now he was a successful entrepreneur with his own motorbike and a team of guides at his service. Promising us that we would not leave Sasan without seeing a lion, he arranged for us to go out on foot with his right-hand man in the afternoon.
 
Wading through a river in the extreme heat of the day, we hike through the forest. Brittle dried twigs snap underfoot as we march in silence for a couple of kilometres. Disturbing the occasional peacock and a family of Gray Langurs (a large monkey), my heart thumps loudly inside my chest. In every direction the forest looks the same, and I begin to wonder how our mute guide can possibly know where on earth he is going. Stopping sharply in his tracks, he blocks us with his arm and carefully points towards a group of trees less than twenty metres away. Swallowing hard, we glare at each other and look in shock at the sight of two fully grown male lions resting under a tree. They look over at us lazily, as they swish their enormous tails in the air. One of the lions moves to stand up, making us extremely aware of its presence and sheer size, and then lays down again. Wrestling a strong desire to flee, the calmness of our guide and his confidence to lead us on foot to such close proximity with these magnificent animals makes me feel more at ease. Photographing them for a while, we slowly back away and return to Sasan with the haunting experience of gazing into the eyes of a wild Asiatic lion fixed permanently in our memories.
  That night we celebrate with Indian gin, and sleep under the stars at a lodge deep inside the national park owned by a friend of Raju's. The men prepare masala chicken on a fire, and we share stories late into the night and listen to the sound of roaring lions in the distance. Talking to the owner of the lodge, a large powerful looking man with salt and pepper hair, he explains how land is a valuable commodity in a place protected for the animals. Crop prices had exploded in recent years, and he was now able to live a good life in this quiet forgotten corner of India.




Asiatic Lion, Sasan Gir, Gujarat (India). Photo by Chris Raven
The following day, we’re persuaded by yet another of Nitin's friends to join him on a tour of an African village. Climbing aboard a large auto-rickshaw, powered by a 500cc Royal Enfield motorbike, we head 18km south of Sasan to the tranquil village of Jambut. Walking through the dusty streets of the town we begin to see African children playing in the street. They gaze at us inquisitively as we’re led by a large man to a house in the back streets. A group of African women in colourful sari's play cards outside, and we smile and nod as we follow the large gentleman into a dusty backyard. Sitting on plastic patio chairs, we watch a man and his son dressed in traditional African clothes, jewellery and head-dresses perform an African dance to pounding drums. For over three-hundred years this African community has been living in this remote corner of India, adopting the Muslim religion but holding on to a language and cultural identity.
  
After the performance we’re led inside a traditional house. We squat down on the hard earth floor and drink chai. Our guide explains that the people here believe they originate from Uganda, and have made a living working the fields. We walk around the deserted main square of the town and peer through the gates to a beautiful mosque covered in turquoise mosaic tiles. Thanking our hosts, and shaking the hands of a number of friendly locals selling food in the main square I find myself in a reflective mood during the journey back to Sasan. Here in Gujarat was Africa, complete with lions, leopards, crocodiles, jackals, hyenas, and a thriving African community. Sasan is a natural paradise more diverse than anywhere I have been, where humans live side by side with nature, and the creation of a wildlife sanctuary continues to stand strong against the pressure of humans thirst for land.

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