Travel India: On the catwalk in Gujarat

India's Asiatic lions are somewhat more elusive than their African cousins - but, as Claire Gervat discovers, marriage proposals are less thin on the ground
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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE WERE predictably unsympathetic when I told them I hadn't seen lions in India. "Well, of course you didn't," they said scornfully. "You were looking on the wrong continent. Lions come from Africa; everyone knows that."

But there are lions in India, too: Asiatic lions, smaller than their African cousins, and extremely rare. They once roamed north India and the Middle East, but over-hunting and loss of habitat meant that by 1913, there were only about 20 left in a small part of Gujarat in north-west India. So the local nawab had it declared a national park and now slightly fewer than 300 of the beasts stalk the Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary in Gir's forests and grasslands.

I've always had a soft spot for cats of any size and savagery. Having seen a tiger on a previous visit to India, I was determined to catch a glimpse of one of the last of the Asiatic lions. My search began at Sasan Gir village, which according to all the guide books was the place to stay when visiting the park.

It was too late for the afternoon safari, so I went to the rearing centre to look at baby crocodiles - all piled on top of each other and motionless in the heat. Then to look at the owner's photo albums full of pictures of lions. I could hardly wait to see them in the flesh.

Later that evening, as I was finishing dinner in the hotel, the night watchman came running in. He'd seen two leopards hunting along the dried- up riverbed beside the hotel, and was frantic for everyone to see them, too. We were as quick as we could be, but it was too late. They had vanished, but their kill - a water buffalo - was still there. Now I was even more excited about the next day's safaris.

The following morning I was at the Visitors' Centre bright and early for my first excursion into the park. There were several people there, so we were sorted into small groups, paid our entry fees and drove off in open jeeps down a bumpy dirt track, through a dry and dusty landscape with occasional bursts of bright orange from the flame tree flowers.

The hours flew, and by the time we arrived back at the Visitors' Centre, the temperature had soared. We had seen some animals, but not as many as I would have liked - mainly deer, monkeys and peacocks. Worst of all, we'd found frustratingly fresh lion and leopard pug marks in the dust at one point; we had missed our quarry by no more than a few minutes. Perhaps we'd have more luck in the afternoon.

The water buffalo carcass outside the hotel was seething with vultures and glossy black crows tried to nip between their legs to peck a few scraps. I stood watching for a while, before I was distracted by a mongoose darting through the grounds and a troop of monkeys playing. And from the first- floor terrace I watched parakeets courting - well, I thought they were parakeets, anyway. At this rate, I was going to see more wildlife outside the park than in it.

To cheer myself up I went to the line of shops for a soft drink and peanuts, and was shown yet more fabulous lion and leopard photos. I began to suspect that they had bought them, even more so after the afternoon foray into the park. There were no lions anywhere.

The next morning's safari was along a more enjoyable route and we saw plenty of different deer, such as sambar and nilgai, a couple of mongooses, and a raucous selection of monkeys. The arid beauty of the landscape was softened by the early morning light, and the air felt clean and velvety. But there was still no sign of lions.

"They are probably hiding in the forest," said the guide. "Unfortunately, that road is closed. It was washed away by the rains. Don't worry. I am sure we will find lions this afternoon," he said confidently. I wasn't so sure.

After lunch I went to the tiny station to see the steam train arrive - which it did eventually, but only after I'd had a cup of tea, watched the birds, refilled my water bottle from the drinking fountain and studied a group of monkeys. It was hard to imagine them ever becoming extinct. The train chuffed in, several hours late, like a relic from the Industrial Revolution and belching black smoke like a bad mood.

The afternoon safari was better than the morning one. We drove out to a large man-made lake where there were crocodiles and a watchtower with views of the lake and the forest. At a waterhole we saw chital deer come to drink, and yet another mongoose. But by closing time, we still hadn't seen any lions. Did they even exist?

We drove slowly in the fading light towards the park exit, gloomy about yet another failure. And then I saw it, a flash of long curving tail. For a split second I thought it was attached to a monkey, but suddenly I realised it was a leopard. No, not one leopard, but two. I could hardly breathe and pointed in stunned silence as we stopped to watch. The two of them leapt effortlessly on to a high stone wall, part of the boundary between the park itself and the buffer zone. They stood there looking at us for several minutes, quite unafraid, and then vanished over the other side.

To calm our nerves, we stopped off for a soothing cold drink at a village where they process sugar cane by crushing out the juice and boiling it in concrete vats until it thickens to a golden jaggery, like treacle in consistency. The driver gave me a sprig of orange flowers and told me I should marry him.

"This is my village," he said proudly. "If you stayed here, you could become a lady guide and see lions and leopards all the time!" Another thought struck him. "You speak English. You would get very good tips." I turned him down as gently as possible.

Back at the hotel, the receptionist said they had a school party arriving tomorrow and my room would be needed. So the next morning I checked out and caught the bus for the next town. I'd looked for lions and seen leopards. Next time, I thought, I'd better search for leopards instead.