Gir is home to the last population of Asiatic Lions in the world. This is fairly problematic, since any disease could wipe this population out -- they are very crowded in a relatively small single area. Over 400 lions, 89 males, are in a 1400-square-kilometre area.
There have been attempts to move some lions to other states and parks, in particular by Madhya Pradesh, but the Government of Gujarat has successfully resisted this so far. As far as self-interest goes, it is a good idea. If MP got Asiatic Lions, they would have all the big cats in their state, effectively cornering the safari market.
Gujarat is planning to relocate lions to another forest within the state, but these plans have been on the drawing board for some time without solid progress. Something will have to be done soon though, I’ve never seen such scarred lions, nor such few prey in a park.
In recent years, lions have been found roaming outside the park in search of food and territory. There are also an estimated 400 leopards also in the park, which seems a likely number since we had several brief sightings, or near sightings of this normally elusive animal.
Tribal herders are still living inside the park, which was different for me. The local maaldhari herders are a devout, nomadic tribal peoples. The government apparently compensates the herders for cattle lost to lions, unless the cattle is killed in areas of the park they are not allowed. Not sure about Gujarat, but in other similar situation with tiger compensation for cattle killing, the money often arrives months late and substantially reduced by the various forest officials and beaurocrats it passes through the hands of.
We arrived at the government lodge – Sinh Sadan – to find the repeated requests, faxes and phone calls for accommodation by the frustrated, but diligent, local travel agent, were essentially ignored. We knew there was an issue, since the forest lodge refused to ‘guarantee’ the booking, “in case VIPs turned up.” Apparently, even if we’d gained lodging, if a VIP and entourage subsequently turned up, we’d be turfed out! This was my first run-in with the issues the facing Gujarati government-run tourism, which is not very tourist-friendly and has a long way to go before matching Rajasthan. They are making an effort to do so, with large add campagnes, but are very far from reaching that goal.
We had wanted to stay at Sinh Sadan because you are automatically assigned one of the 30 jeep slots for park entry if you stay there, and it is where all daily permits into the park are issued. As people who were there for the park and wildlife specifically, this made it a good option in theory. There is no on-line booking for jeeps, nor is there any reservation system. You must line up early before each drive to try for an entry. Make sure you have your passport for the bookings and with you for each drive as well. Some park entry officials are pretty officious.
When you get the permit, it’s for an entire vehicle, which can accomodate 6 people, plus the driver and the forest guide (though if you want to take photos, I'd recommend no more than 4 tourists per jeep), so you can save money by adding people into your jeep and spreading the fee. You pay the forest guide that accompanies you directly at the end of the drive, which is different from most parks in India. At the time of my visit it was 100INR, though if they were good I would give them 200.
We had 5 drives in the park, and saw lions each time! They are completely unphased by people, in a jeep or on foot. The park rangers show up fairly quickly after a sighting is made, and walk around with only a big stick, moving people in and out of position for a photo op. in about 5-min intervals. Good in the sense that it spares the lions the crazed crowding and antics you might see at Bandhavgarh or Ranthambhore, but makes it a bit more like seeing lions at African Lion Safari in Toronto, than in the wild. Still, it makes it one of the best run parks in India I've been to for the wildlife's benefit, which all should be run for.
Our third drive however, saw us alone and coming upon two males. This was for me the best sighting we had, and we were able to stay with them for quite a bit. The poor boys though, they were so beat up! Walking along in the same zone we had seen the lionesses with cubs the previous day, we assumed they had come across this pride and tangled with the protective lionesses.
Wonderful park, well-serviced by accommodation options, but most catering to Gujarati tourists, whose main purpose is not wildlife. This was actually good for us, given the 30 permits per drive allowed since it gives you a fairly good chance at getting into the park if you're there early.
Depending on your interest in other wildlife, and/or photography, stay at least 3 nights.