Namaste India

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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.

Where do I start? This had to be one of the most amazing opportunities in my working career – life in fact. How often do you get to go and see wild Asiatic lions?

I visited India in November 2015 to work with Sakkarbaug Zoo on shaping their education programme, as part of ZSL's partnership with the Wildlife Institute of India and Gujarat Forest Department. This partnership aims to help safeguard Asiatic lions, with ZSL staff training veterinary teams and working with forest rangers to establish effective patrolling systems.  

The ZSL team and others sit around a long table
Dinner on our first night in Junagadh

Joined by members of ZSL’s conservation team, digital team, and animal keepers and experts, we flew out from Heathrow on a Sunday night and had a seven hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, this was followed by a rather extended seven hour wait before a three and half hour flight to Ahmedabad, India.  

The roads are busy in India, with numerous vehicles
View from my car window to Sasan Gir

This was not the end of our travels though, and the next day, after an amazing dinner and a very comfortable night’s sleep, we drove eight hours to Sasan Gir – our final destination. The drive there was beautiful with so many colours in the Gujarati countryside, and a lot of cows. They are sacred in India and are left to roam uninterrupted, which made for some very interesting driving when they wander out onto highways.

Two cows stand on the road, right next to our vehicle
Extra traffic on the roads in India!

We were very excited, especially when we reached our rooms and saw the beautiful view out of the window over the surrounding area.

A view of palm trees with hills in the distance
View from my hotel window over Sasan Gir

On the first morning of our trip we headed to the Gujarat Forest Department’s (GFD) local headquarters in Sasan Gir to meet all our partners and the people we will be working closely with. Our day started with a fantastic glimpse into Indian culture with a ‘lighting of the lamp’ ceremony which helps ensure a united vision and good communication.  We then had key note speeches from high ranking GFD and Wildlife Institute of India officials before giving presentations on ZSL’s patrol based monitoring systems, learning programmes and enrichment programmes – three areas of focus for training while we were there.

It was fascinating to hear about the passion and pride the Gujarati people have for the Asiatic lions and other local wildlife in the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. The GFD local headquarters themselves were in a beautiful location surrounded by bougainvillea flowers and tall trees that provided a lot of relief from the 33°C heat. We also had a little local wildlife which was interesting to watch – such as monitor lizards and three-striped squirrels.

Forestry department Sasan Gir
Forestry department Sasan Gir

After a delicious lunch of Gujarati curry, we were taken to see the Sasan Gir Rescue Centre where Forest Guards leap to action when any reports come in for trapped wildlife, including Asiatic lions and leopards. These animals could have fallen down wells or been reported as injured by the public, and the Forest Guards come to their rescue. My favourite part of the day was seeing Rashila, one of the female GFD Forest Guards, who are also called ‘Queens of the Gir’, climb into the cage that she sometimes needs to be in to sedate leopards. If a leopard or lion has fallen into a well, this protects Rashila while she encourages them onto a rescue platform, so they can be safely lifted out and brought back to the rescue centre.

We then headed to the Devalia Safari Park to board a small bus which took us into a beautiful 4,000 acre fenced section of the larger Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary near Sasan Gir. The Safari Park area allows tourists to get closer to the wildlife while in the safety of the buses, but in a manner supported by the Forest Department to make sure visitors and wildlife are managed properly. 

Black buck in Sasan GIr
Black buck in Sasan GIr

We saw black buck within a matter of minutes on entering the park, followed by jackals, which were close behind the heels of the black buck, then a group of small spotted owls nestled in the hollow of a tree. Before we knew it, we approached a sandy, furry figure sprawled on the dusty road – our first lion! A female resting in the warmth of the sun was not at all bothered by our presence. It was incredibly exciting and all of the ZSL team could barely sit in their seats they were so thrilled. We begrudgingly pulled ourselves away eventually as the sun went down to head back to the interpretation centre to be treated to masala tea.

Asiatic lions in Sasan Gir
Asiatic lions in Sasan Gir

It was an amazing first day that certainly set the tone for the trip – great partnerships and beautiful wildlife. I couldn’t wait to see what else the trip had in store.


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