“Lions?” I said. “In India? Don’t you mean tigers?”
“No,” my friend said. “They have lions in Gujarat. The last surviving Asiatic lions in the wild. And we can see them on safari.”
Now, I don’t have much luck on safari. I’ve been to tiger reserves across India, and never seen a tiger. But chance encounters with wild animals, that’s another story. Once, near the Syria-Lebanon border, I woke to a wolf howling right outside my window. Driving through north Bengal late at night, I had to stop for a baby elephant crossing the road. I saw all these little lights around me in the forest, and realised it was an entire herd of elephants waiting their turn to cross, and they were all looking at me.
So, when we arrived at Gir, last refuge of the Asiatic lion, long after dark, I was all for waiting till morning to look around. But my friend wanted to explore. The lodge where we were staying was right inside the jungle, the air was heavy with scent, and there was a full moon. Two young men who worked at the hotel said they’d come with us.
“Don’t worry,” my friend said. “They’re locals, they say it’s fine.”
“Are you sure?” I said. “They look like kids.” One of them brought a large stick. We left the gates of the compound behind.The two locals led the way, I brought up the rear. There was a noise in the trees. Something big, moving fast. One of the locals swung a torch. The light danced off moving leaves and branches. The young man with the stick came back towards us, wide-eyed.
“Leopard,” he said, excited. I’ve heard about leopards: one wandered into a city in Assam recently and scalped a man in broad daylight. Tore his scalp off. My friend was scornful of my nervousness, but agreed to call off our midnight walk.
The next day, with a guide and the relative safety of an open top jeep, we set off again. It wasn’t hard to find the lions, there was a big male sitting nonchalantly at the side of the road, practically posing for the jeeploads of tourists. A tracker offered to take us to see lionesses and cubs: walking on foot ahead of us, he guided our jeep off the main road. He walked up to within a few feet of the lionesses and stood there calmly.
“Not with the lions,” he said. “It’s the leopards that attack.”
“To the lions we’re just stupid apes, not even worth attacking,” said my friend.
That’s the thing about the lions of Gir, they don’t see humans as a threat. Once, the Asiatic lion population stretched from India across the Middle East as far west as Greece and the Balkans: they are the lions of the ancient Greek legends. But today they are extinct everywhere except this one corner of India. And yet they are one of the great conservation success stories.
In 1913, there were only 20 lions left in Gir. By 2005, there were 359 lions, and the numbers keep on growing. In 2010, there were 411.
India’s tigers get all the attention. They’re the pin-ups of conservation. Project Tiger is probably the most famous conservation scheme in the world — and one of the biggest failures, considering the way tiger numbers are falling. But most people outside India have never heard of Gir or its lions.
Gir gives the lie to those who suggest that India is somehow incapable, because of endemic corruption or lack of official will, of preserving its endangered species. There must be lessons that can be drawn from Gir’s success.
But I fear at least part of the reason for the lions’ survival is prosaically simple, it is the same reason they are unafraid of humans: no one is hunting them.
Conservation began in Gir in the 1870s when the Nawab of Junagadh, the princely ruler of the area, issued strict restrictions on the hunting of lions.
Today there aren’t many lion hunters left in the world, just the odd crazed fool. But there are still plenty of tiger hunters.
People don’t believe lion bones will cure arthritis, lion fat will treat rheumatism or lion brain will cure pimples. But adherents of traditional Chinese medicine believe those things about tiger parts, and there is a lucrative black market. Now there are alarming reports that tiger numbers have fallen so low that the Chinese medicine industry is turning to lion parts as a substitute.
If you or your children never see a tiger in the wild, it will be the fault of the insecure man who thinks eating tiger penis will improve his virility, and everyone else who believes this hocus pocus medicine is worth killing off an entire species.
And yes, I think we should take it personally.