Think of Gir Forest and you think of the Asiatic Lion. This big cat had Asia and the Middle East as its hunting grounds but hunting and human encroachment have decimated its population. Once down to only 20, conservation efforts resulted in a rise in their population to over 500 according to a census carried out in 2015. The Gir Forest is the only place where one can see them in their natural environment. This area is protected and it is known as The Gir Forest National Park and Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. A visit to Gir is obligatory should you visit Gujarat.
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An area of Gir Forest covering about 1412 square kilometers became a sanctuary for the Asiatic Lion in 1965. An additional peripheral area of about 258 sq. km. was added to the zone and no human activity was allowed. Only Maldharis had traditional grazing rights. The forest covers hillocks of Gir and Girnar and vegetation is mostly of the dry deciduous type as well as grassland. The Lion is the pride of Gir but the Park is also home to numbers of other living creatures. It would take days to explore the entire forest but there are popular trekking routes and one must get an entry permit and have a guide along with a jeep to embark on a safari inside the protected area. In fact, the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary comprises of smaller protected habitats like the Gir Sanctuary, Gir National Park, Mitiyala Sanctuary, Girnar Sanctuary and Pania Sanctuary. Of these the Gir Sanctuary, the Gir National Park and Pania Sanctuary are the main protected areas for the lion.
The Gir is home to over 500 various species of plants and trees. Teak, acacia, zizyphus, tendu, dhak and flame of the forest, as well as tamarind, karanj and banyan, are some of the trees in this region. In addition, there is savannah forest and grassland.
The Gir is home to about 2375 species of animals comprised of herbivores and carnivores. The lion makes up only a small part of the population of jungle cats, hyenas, jackals, mongoose, badgers, and leopards. The herbivores comprise antelopes, chinkara, blackbuck, blue bulls, sambar, and chital. There are smaller animals like hedgehogs, porcupines, crocodiles, tortoise, monitor lizards, snakes, and hares. 300 species of birds inhabit the forest and the species includes eagles, vultures, owls, quails, woodpeckers, Orioles, and pitta.
If so many animals can survive and thrive it is largely due to the presence of water bodies inside the Sanctuary. The rivers Hiran, Datardi, Shingoda, Shetrunji, Raval, Godavari and Machhundri flow through the Sanctuary and there are four dams inside on the rivers with the largest being the Kamleshwar Dam that provides water throughout the year for the birds and animals.
Apart from the core area of Gir Sanctuary, there is an additional zone known as the Gir Interpretation Zone Devalia has been created inside the sanctuary. The purpose is to prevent the impact of tourism on the natural flora and fauna of the sanctuary. The interpretation has several caged lions and other animals. An entry freer of Rs 75 is applicable.
It is not uncommon for people who drive on the highway that passes through the Sanctuary to see a pride of lions alongside the road or a lion crossing the road or even sprawling on the road. However, there are organized safaris with an accompanying guide that take visitors inside the trail.
The Gir National Park is open for visitors from the middle of October to the middle of June and it remains closed during the monsoon. A jeep safari is the best way to safely traverse selected trails and watch lions going about their natural activities. The safari inside also gives a glimpse of other animals and it can be a fulfilling experience.
There are several dos and don’ts to keep in mind such as not doing anything to disturb wildlife, smoking, littering, picking plants, walking in the park, no picnicking or camping and no hunting. One must carry food and water and have a guide alongside. It is mandatory to obtain a permit from the Sinh Sadan Orientation Centre in order to enter the forest reserve. This can be obtained at the Centre or online. One can only travel by vehicle inside the Park and there are entry fees for vehicles according to carrying capacity. One can drive in one’s own vehicle or hire a jeep at the Sinh Sadan.
Ahmedabad, the major air, road and rail junction, is 348 km away and Rajkot is 156 km away. Junagadh is the city closest to the Gir National Park, about 55 km away. It is a rail junction and a road junction. One can easily hire private vehicles or take a state transport bus to reach the sanctuary in about a half hour. Rajkot is another city, about 105 km from Junagadh, from where one can travel to the Gir in about 2 or 3 hours’ time. The other points of approach are from Somnath side from where one can drive along the coast and take a detour towards the Gir. Diu is an island resort where one can spend a couple of days after arriving here by air and then go on to Gir, about 110 km away. In addition to state transport buses, there are private bus operators and the ubiquitous jeeps on sharing basis.
Best Time to Visit
The Park opens in the middle of October. This is probably the best time to visit the Gir Sanctuary because there is plenty of greenery around and the weather is pleasantly cool. Summers are best avoided because of the heat. Springtime, when the trees blossom with flowers, could be another good time to go on a safari ride inside the Gir.
If you get a chance to look the lion in the eyes it can be an experience to cherish the rest of your life.
Gir Forest National Park Map