Preeti Pandya, wife of wildlife conservationist and well-known wildlife photographer Bhushan Pandya, captured 18 Gir lions in one frame during the couple’s visit to the famous Gir forest in Gujarat on World Environment Day last month. This is the highest number of Gir lions to be captured in a single frame in the history of the forest.
“We were getting information that two prides having a total of 20 lions were observed roaming the Dedakadi area of Gir in the past few days. On June 5, while we were visiting that part of Gir, we were lucky to witness the two prides—one comprising two lionesses and five cubs and the other comprising four lionesses and nine cubs—meet briefly. Preeti was lucky to be able to capture 18 lions of the two prides in one frame,” Bhushan, the Rajkot-based conservationist, told The Indian Express.
The conservationist said the big cat numbers were a tribute to the conservation efforts put in by the forest department and the people. He said two cubs could not be captured in the frame as they were too playful and outside the range of the wide-angle lens of her camera.
Spread across Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, the Gir forest and other protected areas are home to the world’s only population of wild lions outside Africa. The lions of the scenic Gir forest have mesmerised wildlife photographers and wildlife enthusiasts the world over. In 1971, wildlife photographer Suleman Patel photographed nine lions licking water in a frame. The photo was published in many publications and internationally acclaimed as a rare event in the history of the Gir lion.
In the late 1990s, IFS officer B P Pati recorded 11 lions in one frame. Sometime after that, Bhushan was lucky to click 13 lions of a family in a single frame. In 2011, Sandeep Kumar, then deputy conservator of forests of Sasan, photographed a pride of 14 lions. IFS officer couple T Karuppasamy and Sakkira Begum photographed 16 lions in a frame in 2016. Now, Preeti, the 58-year-old homemaker who has been accompanying her husband on his Gir trips for more than two decades, has set a new record by capturing 18 lions in one frame.
“Generally, Bhushan and our son Nishad do the photography and occasionally I will photograph Bhushan doing his work. But on this particular trip to Gir, Nishad was not accompanying us as he was on a business trip, and Bhushan gave me the camera. I was not expecting anything like this. I had never seen so many lions together in my life. But that said, there was actually no time to count them. Having seen my husband and son doing wildlife photography, I just started pushing the shutter button of my camera frantically and by God’s grace, I got this frame,” Preeti, who holds a diploma in home science and has worked in her husband’s photo studio, said.
Bhushan sustained life-threatening injuries in a car crash on his way to Sasan in Gir in 2013. It paralaysed and confined him to bed for many months. He has still not been able to resume wildlife photography.
The couple in fact saw 23 lions on that trip, including a male lion and two lionesses at other locations. But it was at the Gadakbari artificial waterhole where all the drama unfolded. Bhushan, a member of the Gujarat State Board for Wildlife, said they first saw a pride of two adult lionesses and five small cubs, about three months of age.
“We waited a little farther away from the tourist Gypsies to let the other tourists watch the lions without disturbance.… The happy tourists slowly left the location in hope to spot other lions or of course, a leopard. We were about to position ourselves better to see the mothers and their adorable cubs. Just then, the lionesses got up and started walking towards us, and the cubs followed in one line, waddling behind them. The pride of seven crossed the road and settled in an open area, with the hill near Bhandargala in the background,” Bhushan said.
After being told by the experienced wildlife tracker team of Sasan that there was another pride of four lionesses and nine cubs in the same area, the Pandyas decided to keep observing the seven lions for some more time. They were surprised to see the pride of 13 walk over to the same spot. “After some time, the leaves rustled and our anticipation grew. And soon enough, the larger pride of thirteen walked out of the vegetation and to our astonishment, joined the smaller pride and sat down among them! Our delight knew no bounds. Such a rare sighting, and as luck would have it, on World Environment Day!” said Bhushan, adding, “I have been visiting Gir for nearly six decades now, but I had never seen twenty lions together in my hundreds of visits here.”
Lions are territorial animals and often engage in bloody fights over territories. “However, such fights remain limited to male lions. I have observed that females of different prides do not clash with one another over a territory,” Bhushan said, adding that the meeting of the two prides was not violent.
Preeti said she dedicated the images and videos to the state forest department and its hardworking field staff.
“Beyond records and numbers, this is a proud moment for all of us. The consistent conservation efforts initiated by Nawab Rasulkhanji III of Junagadh twelve decades ago are showing the desired results. The wildlife division, the local people, the scientists, the state and central governments, the media, and several NGOs have all greatly contributed to sustain these conservation efforts. The lion population, which was merely 60-100 about 125 years ago, has increased to 674, and the area of Asiatic lion landscape is 30,000 square kilometres, as per the Poonam Avlokan results of June 2020,” said Bhushan.