2,000 stairs, vultures and Asiatic lions

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As part of ZSL’s ongoing conservation work with Asiatic lions, senior learning manager Rachel Haydon spent a week in India helping to shape Sakkarbaug Zoo’s educational activities around wildlife conservation in the Gir Forest National Park.

In her five-part blog series, Rachel talks us through her incredible trip to see these majestic creatures in the wild, as well as how to best communicate key conservation messages with the local communities in the Gir.

Our fourth day in India brought a very early 5.30am wakeup call to head to Junagadh. We were going to meet a forest guard who was escorting us up 2,000 of the 5,000 stairs up the Girnar steps in the Girnar hills to see the critically endangered white-backed vultures and long-billed vultures in their natural habitat. This climb was going to be made all the more interesting by the fact this weekend celebrated an annual pilgrimage for devotees of Hinduism and Jainism, who would walk the 10,000 total steps to visit temples at the top of the hills.

Words cannot describe how amazing this journey was. We were somewhat an object of fascination and I’m sure more than one pilgrim wondered what we were doing on the stairs. We were surrounded by the colour and vibrancy of the Guajarati people. It was noisy with voices and celebratory music playing.  It was hot, around 35°C, and dusty. It got more peaceful as we ascended, but my thigh muscles were positively screaming at me at step 500 and a cold mango juice had never felt as life-sustaining as it did on those stairs.

Rachel and the rest of the team after their 2,000 stair journey
Rachel and the rest of the team after their 2,000 stair journey

Thankfully the stairs were scattered with stalls selling any sort of drink, snack, religious iconography and souvenir you could wish for, so we could be topped up after the intense sweating. The hillside was also scattered with hanuman langurs which proved very entertaining to watch when I needed a short break for my legs. We gratefully veered off onto a flat track at the 2,000 stair mark and wow, did the vultures not disappoint.

Their nests were nestled in all sorts of nooks and crannies on a huge, looming cliff face where the sun was slowly beginning to peek over the top. After only a few minutes the vultures took flight to dry their wings out in the morning sun and showed us their true magnificence. Their wing span was impressive and all the more elegant with the winglets curved upwards at the end of their wings.  Soon we had six long-billed vultures circling on the thermals above us.  I had to pinch myself to remind myself of just how lucky I was to see a number of these critically endangered birds in flight.

Long billed vulture flying over Gir Nar
Long billed vulture flying over Girnar

We soon sadly had to make our way back down as it was time to head back. It was a relatively rapid descent which was a little tough on the knees.

The afternoon proved to have second wildlife treat in store as we were headed to the Sasan Gir National Park to see wild Asiatic lions. This time in an open jeep and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little exhilarated to do so.  It shows the true nature of the respect the Guajarati people have for these lions that they would travel in an open top jeep to see them.

Asiatic lion and two cubs
Asiatic lion and two cubs

We ended up being incredibly, incredibly lucky to see a total of fourteen lions on this jeep trip, in addition to jackals, serpent eagles, ring-necked parakeets and spotted deer.  One experience in particular will stick with me for the rest of life.  A female lion was lounging lazily in the middle of the dirt track in front of us suckling her two small cubs. It was a very emotional experience to see this little slice of lion life with my own eyes.  You could have heard a pin drop for all the intense focus we had on the lions – no one wanted to look away. It got a whole lot more exciting with the mother getting up and walking up to and around our open top jeep. All of us were holding our breath in awe!

As we drove back in the setting sunlight I had to pinch myself again – I was feeling very, very privileged and could not believe what I have seen that day. It gave me even more motivation to help the Wildlife Institute of India, Sakkarbaug Zoo and Gujarat Forest Department’s frontline staff to help other people feel the same way about these magnificent animals.


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