Ask any kid who the king of the jungle is, and she will promptly reply that it is the lion. Well, I used to disagree with this, because, I thought that the tiger was more majestic and “kinglier” than the lion. But, this was before I paid a visit to the abode of the Asiatic lions, the Gir National park in Gujarat.
The people there were so warm and kind, that I felt at home almost at once. It was love at the first sight. As simple as that. We were doubly excited when we heard that there were two prides with really small cubs, just about a few months old. We kept our fingers crossed throughout, in the hope of getting just a glimpse of them. But it took us three trips into the jungle just to set my eyes on my first lion (or lioness to be exact). After the first sighting, we were lucky enough to spot a lion or a lioness every other trip; but the cubs still evaded us.
We were accompanied by Murad bhaiya, our driver, and Bikku bhaiya, his friend, who is known to be the best lion tracker there. He is well known for his famous “disappearance acts”. Walking into the dense growths, he would ask us to drive on, and would wolf- whistle from somewhere about a kilometre ahead, to tell us that he had spotted a pride of lions there. The first time he did this, I grew quite worried, because we had driven on for a considerable distance, and there was still no sight of him. And then, out of the blue, he pushed out of the undergrowth, whistling at us to stop. He jumped onto the jeep, and guided Murad bhaiya through an unused path, the jeep groaning and whining as it bumped on tree stumps and rocks, before we saw a pride of lions basking in the sun. There was no way we could have spotted this from the usual path that we had been following!!
Passing time during the long waits for the lions to show themselves was also, surprisingly, quite interesting. Instead of the usual quiet waits, where we would be left to our own thoughts with just the sound of the wind and the chirruping of the birds to set the beat to our thoughts, we had a fruity feast! Plucking Kali Mynha berries, straight from the low branches, wiping the milk that the broken stump secreted on their rough leaves, and devouring them till our tongues became black and numb, is something I have never experienced anywhere else. Bikku Bhaiya also made us try the fruits from the tree whose leaves are used to make beedi, and surprisingly, they were really tasty for a fruit from a tree used to make something so despicable and harmful.
The days passed by quickly, and the final day dawned. Disappointed at the thought of leaving without setting our eyes on the little ones, we were greeted with more bad news. One of the cubs we were hoping to see had been killed by a lion from the rival pride. I remember the guard shedding tears, as he told us about the trusting mother, whom he had known ever since she was a cub. It was a very quiet trip, as we all mourned in silence for the little one. Suddenly, the jeep halted with a jerk, and Murad bhaiya, with shaking hands pointed out to a small speck at the top of a small hillock. It was the lioness who had lost her cub, and her other two cubs. The cubs were unusually quiet, and I knew that they were mourning for their brother too, in their own special way. Not wanting to intrude, we left them in peace after catching an eyeful of them.
“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope”, said Mufasa in The Lion King. I still feel that the tiger is more majestic than the lion, but I know now, deep down, that the lion is kinglier, and deserves to be the king of the jungle.