Many of the trackers are illiterate while others have barely passed high school. However, they are the all-knowing teachers when it comes to helping scholars from around the world study lion behaviour. “On an average, a tracker with 25 years of experience will have assisted 15 PhD students, both Indians and foreign. We have trackers who even help wildlife channels make documentaries,” says a forest officer.
“Our job is to observe the lion all day, follow him at a distance of 1 km. There are 411 lions and just 14 of us,” says tracker Mohammad Arif, 53. He has been tracking the wild cats for 35 years.
Rajesh Vaja, 34, who has studied up to class VII, says education could be important in other professions, but not for his work. “We learn from our fathers,” he says. “My entire lineage consists of trackers.” He takes his three-year-old son for a stroll inside the protected forest zone as a form of education.
Dean of the wildlife department at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, and himself a PhD on lions, Yadvendra Jhala, gives full credit to the trackers. “The current trackers are descendents of the ‘shikaris’ from the time of the Nawab (of Junagadh), they have excellent field craft and an uncanny ability to follow spoor – the track or scent of an animal – in the jungle,” he says. “There are currently some five to seven such good trackers in Gir from that generation. Two are working on a WII research project as field assistants.”
He adds that these trackers have been indispensable in training his students in field craft, and have been immensely helpful in locating specific lions for radio-collaring and research. “They are courageous, know lion and leopard behaviour and one could rely on them for dangerous tasks of capture and translocation of problem animals as well.”
These lionhearts know the animals intimately. “If a lion hasn’t moved enough in days, we know it is unwell,” says Vaja. “We message the doctor who comes and tranquilizes that particular lion. We then hold the animal in place while it is treated. It often gets dangerous when they wake up. We even get hurt.”
Vaja has been attacked once in 15 years. These trackers know how to determine a lion’s age through its teeth and sometimes, give the doctor advice on how to treat the beast.
Another wildlife expert, Ravi Chellam, too had studied lion behaviour for his doctoral thesis. “In the early days when a researcher is new to the forest, these trackers are very handy as they are aware of the dwelling, terrain and behaviour of the lions,” he says.
Chellam remembers how he would not have been able to radio-collar a lion for his thesis without Wazirbhai, the head tracker in those days. “Being summer I could not see anything after I hit a lion with a tranquilizing dart, but Wazirbhai held his nerve and tracked the lion 10 minutes later. I developed a personal bond with him.”
The lion is not an enemy for these trackers, nor it is a friend. But one thing they can vouch for – the lion will not attack wantonly. “These princely creatures know we are around them and don’t mind it. If we come too close for comfort, a single throaty growl is enough to warn us. We know when to back off,” says Mohammad Juma, 46, who has been in the profession for 25 years.
“When they hunt, they make no sound. Even dry leaves don’t cackle under their paws. Hunting is an extreme sport for them and we must maintain a sacred distance,” says Arif.
“We go to Panchmahal to rescue leopards too. We are genetically adept at managing big, feisty animals. The forest officers post us at other places for rescue operations all year,” says Vaja.
Ask these men if they pet these creatures or name them for fun and pat comes the reply from the angry looking Arif, “We are scared every day, but we don’t spare much thought over it. Lekin unko chhune ka dil hua, toh wo zindagi ka aakhri chhuna ho jayega, samjhe?” (if we feel like petting them, it will be the last time we touch anything in our lives, you understand…)