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GIR FOREST NATIONAL PARK, GUJARAT, INDIA
ASIATIC LION, PANTHERA LEO PERSICA

A male Asiatic lion blends into the high grass and stares intensely at a possible threat taking its last refuge in the wild within India's Gir Forest National Park.

A little more than 400 Asiatic lions are believed to still live free in their only wild refuge - India's Gir Forest in Gujarat with an area of close to 1500 square kilometers. This is a considerable rise since the 52 counted at the last census in 2005 and also explains why the National Park is facing overpopulation while at the same time pressure thru human settlings around the park is steadily increasing. Plans to reallocate lions into other areas in India are being discussed but it will take time to get implemented.

Slightly smaller and generally lighter in color than its African cousins, the Asiatic lions have very similar behavioral patterns, are highly sociable animals and hunt mainly deer, antelopes and gazelles in the open Gir forests interspersed with grasslands. The males tend to be solitary and only join the prides during mating season or if there is a large kill.

A long time ago when the Asiatic lion was more widespread in India there must have been encounters with tigers as well (they are absent from Gir Forest). Hunters, naturalists, artists, and poets still to this day contemplate about how a fight between these two largest of the big cats may ensue. In Roman times the contest of the lion against the tiger was a classic pairing in the colosseums. It is generally believed that in a one on one combat a tiger would have the upper hand, while of course a pride of lions as a group may drive of a solitary tiger.

It was almost surreal driving around in an Indian forest to look for lions. Even more so that when some lions were discovered somewhere off the path in the forest and a tourist bus full of Indian's would stop, the people, kids and all, would get out and walk towards the lions as if they were no danger at all!

I asked my driver to guide me into more remote areas of the National Park; unfortunately every time we would encounter lions he was too scared to switch of the old battered Maruti jeep, because it took a long time - sometimes having to push it - to start. So when I wanted to take a picture of a bird sitting on a tree with my 600mm on a tripod I was able after some negotiations and promise of a good tip to convince the driver that this now was a safe moment to switch off the engine. Little did I and my driver realize, that we were already observed intensely by a very big cat.

As I was taking my eyes off the viewfinder to look again at the bird and composition possibilities I suddenly - in a heart stopping moment - discovered a big male lion standing above us on an earth heap next to the path not more than three meters away. It was not only the absolute silence in which the lion approached us and actually less the closeness of it that was the real scary part, but the fact that he was looking down onto us - a little jump and he would have been between us in the open jeep. The driver and I were frozen, we did not move, did not breath. Very slowly, always staring at us in that intense way only wild hungry big cats can, the lion walked down from the earth heap in front and then to left of the jeep, circling us, down into a small grass ditch. As the lion was moving I dared to reach down, grab my other camera with the 80-200mm, and shot this image - all the time locking my eyes with those of the lion. This truly was the most intense eye-to-eye I ever had with a wild animal. Then, as silently as he came, the lion just walked off into the dense forest. I had to push the jeep to start afterwards, but boy did I push quickly.

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