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The only lions outside Africa exist in the Sasan Gir Forest Reserve, created in 1913 and accorded sanctuary status in 1965. Several hundred Asiatic lions have been bred here and now number close to 350. Other notable fauna includes leopard, wild pig, spotted deer, nilgai, four-horned antelope, and chinkara (a type of gazelle). A large water hole contains a few crocodiles. The sanctuary lies in a hilly region of dry scrubland. With an area of 1,295 sq km, its vegetation consists of teak with an admixture of deciduous trees, including sal (Shorea), dhak (Butea frondosa), and thorn forests.The park also has a small temple dedicated to Krishna near the Tulsi-Shyam Springs. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica]
Lions were once plentiful in Asia, which explains their prevalence in folk stories like the Panchatantra. Even in the 19th century, they ranged from the Middle-East to Bihar. While the lion population at Gir has grown in recent years, they compete for habitat with 52 human settlements of various sizes inside the sanctuary. Livestock constitutes about 25% of the lion diet and this loss is tolerated by the locals (the dominant group is called Maldharis). The locals include the Sidis of East African extraction (brought in as slave-soldiers by the royals of Junagarh ?) who have now lived here for centuries as pastoralists and farmers. Though Indian in every other way, their music and dance still retain strong links to Africa (I saw a troupe of Sidis perform in Jaipur once). Most Sidis are Sufi Muslims and today live at the margins of Indian society (more here).
A note to wildlife watchers: brace yourself for some cavalier, overzealous, and boisterous men who unfortunately serve as park rangers, drivers, and safari guides. [— Apr 06; post/read visitor]
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