Wild Gujarat

The only wildlife I had experienced on previous trips to Gujarat were the ones meandering around Ahmedabad’s crowded streets: bulls and cows, goats, packs of stray dogs. But our Saurashtra itinerary included visits to two national wildlife parks, Velavadar National Park, outside of Bhavnagar, and Gir National Park in the southern part of the state. We’re not talking the abundance of the Serengeti here. But each park is home to a number of mammal and bird species native to India. I’m glad that Gujarat has designated land for national parks and ostensibly funding preservation.

The star of Sasan Gir is the endangered Asiatic lion. Unlike its African cousin, the Asian lion does help the lioness and hunts for food. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any on our official safari. The next day we went to the Sasan Gir Interpretation Zone, which is sort of a mini-safari park, where the lions, along with other species, are kept in a combination of large fenced-in and open-space areas. That’s where we caught our glimpse of the big cats.

Both parks need some improvement on the customer-facing aspects of their experience. At Velavadar, a guide couldn’t be bothered to take us around, so we drove ourself through the park. This worked out fine for us, setting aside that this approach means no informed commentary on the wildlife. But what about if some less scrupulous visitors decided to drive off-road and into the animals’ habitat? Sasan Gir was more organized in that at least guides and drivers were made available. Their process is a little cumbersome. For some reason, the park eliminated reservations for the limited number of Jeep places available for each day. So, we had to get in line three hours in advance. Dad and I were the last two to get a place and many of our fellow line-waiters ended up waiting for nothing. I have to think some enterprising Indian software programmer could do a public service and design reservation software for Sasan Gir.

It’s interesting to read on the Gujarat Tourism’s website on Sasan Gir the candid comments by the Forestry Department on what it feels are its challenges to maintaining the preserve. Farmers from the 97 villages that surround the park often graze their livestock within the protected forest while tourists who visit the park as an “afterthought” exert pressure on the infrastructure and do little of benefit to the park or the lions. That’s an interesting assertion. I’d love to know what sort of support park officials would like from visitors.

The website also brings up a very Indian challenge. “The presence of several temples inside the park also puts strain on the ecosystem, as visitors to them also demand accommodation and infrastructure that often conflicts with the park’s conservation goals, leading to great controversy and political tension between park management and temple management.” Unfortunately, given the mounds of trash so carelessly thrown out onto the streets every day, I sadly see how difficult it must be to have these temple-goers in the park. I’m not saying that all devotees are leaving a trail of trash behind them, but I think it’s true that Indians generally have yet to behave responsibly when it comes to the environment.

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