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Wanted – Another Home For The Asiatic Lion

Wanted – Another Home For The Asiatic Lion

October 1992: The 64,349 sq. km. Saurashtra peninsula in Gujarat is a semi-arid region which has been so severely deforested that its natural vegetation cover has all but vanished. Virtually all that remains of a once-vast wilderness is the 1,412 sq. km. Gir forest, the last home of the endangered Asiatic lion.

Saurashtra now experiences a harsh climatic regime, with droughts occurring with depressing regularity. Summers are scorching with temperatures very often exceeding 450 C and frosty winter nights out in the open can be freezing. The rains, when they do come, often bring with them a trail of devastation in the form of floods. In Saurashtra, the price of tampering with natural ecosystems is already being paid. Ravi Chellam, along with others of his tribe, is helping us to understand the natural systems we seem so determined to destroy.

MAY 1989. In the heat of a Saurashtra summer I prepared to radio-track an adult lioness in the savanna-like eastern section of Gir. It was after eleven a.m. and the sun burned ferociously from out of a pale blue sky as I scanned the dry grass landscape that spread away from me. The day had begun at five a.m. with a 20 km., vehicular count for deer and antelope and in the stunted thorn forest the oppressive heat sapped my energy. Radio-tracking was my second task of the day. Fortunately, I had managed to pick up the signals of the lioness without too much effort and I was now approaching her on foot. I estimated that she was still about a kilometer away. A 20 minute trudge, monitoring signals all the way, brought me very close to the resting lioness. Steady and loud signals now beat through my headphones. I reduced the volume of the signal and asked my trackers to tread carefully. The objective of radio-tracking is to locate subjects with the least amount of disturbance and the greatest efficiency. Besides, being prepared in lion country is always a good idea as the consequences of stumbling onto a resting lioness hardly need elaboration.

As we came around a Carissa thicket we saw a huge nilgai bull sitting out in the sun. This struck me as odd. The heat was unbearable and most animals should have sought cover. Moreover, the radio signals indicated that the lioness was in the immediate vicinity. I was excited at the prospect of observing a hunt and we retreated into the cover of the thicket from where I scanned the surrounding bush for my subject. Unable to locate her visually I focused on the nilgai and was surprised to see red froth emerging out of its nostrils and mouth. The animal was obviously in great distress, it was breathing very heavily and made no effort to  move. It was now that I saw the lioness, resting in the shade of an Acacia tree barely 20 metres away, panting heavily through a bloodied muzzle. After more than three years of research experience with the lions, even I was surprised by the predatory skills of the lioness. Weighing about 120 kgs the feline had managed to stalk and ambush an animal twice its own weight. Having successfully incapacitated the antelope she now waited patiently in the shadows. Sure enough, within an hour or so, the nilgai groaned loudly, thrashed about and collapsed as its life gradually ebbed away. I examined the carcass and found that the back had bite marks and the flanks were clawed. The ground was soaked with blood, pouring out of a large oval-shaped wound between the hind legs. The lioness had obviously brought down her prey by leaping on its back and delivering an incapacitating bite into its back-bone. It subsequently inflicted the grevious wound in the nilgai’s groin, leading it to bleed to death.

Tracking lions

I was in Gir between 1986 and 1990 as part of a Wildlife Institute of India study and one of our key objectives was to radio-collar lions to understand their behaviour better by monitoring them over an extended period of time. We also wished to gather information on their home-range size and habitat use. Though we had considerable natural history information, radio-collaring added a qualitative edge to our understanding of these great beasts.

In the monsoon of 1989, for instance, in the central core of the Gir forest which is protected as a National Park, we had radio-tracked a lioness which led us to her pride consisting of eight other lionesses and younger lions. The collared lioness had two eight-month-old cubs. In the monsoon, rain turns the black clayey soil into a sticky mass and the deciduous vegetation explodes with luxuriant foliage. Grasses too grow thick and tall, as a result of which visibility falls and mobility is severely restricted. We had been walking for over two hours without being able to pick up the cat on our receiver. Our patience and stamina flagging, we climbed yet another hill to scan for signals. Looking up at the sky I saw that rain was imminent and decided that this would be our final attempt for the day. Just then we got a clear signal suggesting that the lioness was fairly close. Taking a compass bearing, we started homing in on the collared lioness. After crossing a couple of nullahs and climbing up and down some hill slopes, we reached a patch of waist-high grass which revealed a distinct trail of flattened vegetation. It looked like the lions had made a kill and had dragged their prey into cover.

By now the electronic signals were thudding in my ears. I estimated that the lioness was no more than 100 metres away to the right. Dense grass and huge, rain fed teak leaves afforded more than adequate cover for the lions so we cautiously inched our way up a slope into a forested plateau. As we cleared the first bush to our left and examined the drag trail, an adult lioness grunted, barely five metres from us and emerged from behind the cover of grass and a sloping teak tree. Startled by our presence, she bolted, leaving behind an eight-week-old cub which had evidently been suckling and had lost its grip on the teat. We were transfixed by a combination of fear, excitement and wonder and had to consider ourselves lucky that the mother had not charged us in defence of her cubs. Before us lay three tawny balls of fur, lying in the flattened grass. We could literally have bent down and picked up the cubs, but that would have been foolish as it would have definitely earned us the wrath of the lioness. We had been trained specifically to desist from such impulses. After a few minutes the cubs, mewing and whining, slowly made their way, out of our sight, towards their mother.

We stayed silently where we were and the collared lioness may well have been watching us from cover. Moments later she emerged, growling a little, cubs in tow. The family headed towards some bushes 30 metres distant, where, we discovered, a sambar doe had been killed and partially eaten. When they moved away, with my field assistants standing guard, I used a knife to extract the lower jaw of the sambar. The measurement of the crown height of the first molar of the lower jaw would reveal the age of the deer. After 30 minutes of careful noting of information about the kill and the habitat, for later analysis, we began our one hour trek back to the Jeep.

In Search of Data

Lest the above narratives present readers with the mistaken notion that the life of a wildlife researcher in the forest is all excitement and action, I hasten to add that it also involves considerable hard work and is often studded with moments of sheer despair and frustration coupled with heavy doses of monotonous routine! Our study involved gathering data on the predation ecology, home range size and habitat use of the Gir lions and was initiated by Dr. J.B. Sale and supervised by Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh. The information we were gathering would be vital for the ultimate objective of the study, which was to explore the feasibility of translocating some of the lions to a second home. Today the only free-ranging population of Asiatic lions survive in Gir. All sole populations of endangered species face the threat of extinction, especially from disease. To put it another way, we did not wish to leave all our eggs in one basket. An outbreak of disease can spread rapidly and 1,400 sq. kms. is not by far large enough to buffer the species from such a threat.

Sword of Damocles

There is a chilling finality about extinction and we must try to do all we can to save the Gir lions from that sword of Damocles. Fortunately, with the increased availability of ecological information it is now possible for focused conservation action to be undertaken on a war-footing. In the case of the Asiatic lions considered opinion suggests that the establishment of a second free-ranging population is vital to their survival as it would minimize the risk of extinction. We do, after all, owe it to posterity that the lion’s roar resonates in perpetuity through the forests of India.

Gathering information on the ecology of wild animals may seem to be an esoteric exercise to some. Far from it. The conservation of wild species and their habitats is complex and involves the marriage of theoretical concepts and empirical strategies. Research provides the information that enables proper and scientific decision making. It also provides a bench-mark on the conservation status of various species and their habitats for comparison with their past or future status.

Finding a second home for the lions and undertaking a translocation effort is infinitely more complicated than, say, moving human populations. By far the most vital information that was required was that on the lion’s home range size and habitat preferences. With this information under our belts, we could start the difficult task of looking for other areas that fit the bill for the cat which is referred to as the king of the jungle. Information on the home-range would, for instance, help wildlife managers to judge just how large an area would be suitable for an alternate population of Asiatic lions.

Radio-tracking has revealed that the annual home-range of a male lion is about 100 sq. kms. while for females it is about 50 sq. km. Having come to this conclusion, it is now possible to recommend that the proposed site for lion translocation should be at least 500 to 800 sq. kms. in extent. This second free-ranging population, would serve as an insurance against the extinction of Asiatic lions. If anything drastic happened to the lions in Gir, the second pool could be used to re-populate the Gir forest. Re-introduction is, of course, a very complicated affair. Nevertheless, free-ranging lions would be better suited for such an exercise than captive-bred animals.

The Lion’s ways

Lions are territorial and organise themselves into groups, called prides, whose members interact peacefully with each other. The core group of a pride consists of closely related lioness and their off-spring. A group of male lions numbering between two to seven may associate with one or more such female groups. These male groups are referred to as ‘male coalitions’. The males patrol their territory and regularly mark the boundaries to proclaim their ownership. They also roar regularly, especially through the cooler hours of the day and night, to warn and ward off potential intruders. The tenure of male coalitions is limited (on an average for about three years) as younger and stronger males constantly attempt to displace older territorial lions. This gives them access to the pride females and presents mating opportunities. Sub-adult lions and displaced older lions lead a wandering life without holding a territory. They are referred to as nomads, while the settled ones are called ‘pride’ or ‘territorial’ lions.

Lions are very mobile animals. To obtain information on their home-range size it is important to be able to locate specific individuals repeatedly over the various seasons. The only realistic way to gather this crucial data is to radio-collar the lions. As with any new idea, immobilisation  of wild animals and the use of radio-telemetry as research technique has attracted a lot of fairly unwarranted criticism in India. There is no denying that risks exist, but if the operation is carried out by experienced personnel and with adequate safeguards, radio-telemetry is an invaluable, often indispensable, research tool especially given the difficult tropical forest conditions in India.

Animals have been chemically immobilised And fitted with radio-collars all over the world for more than three decades now. India has been rather slow in catching up with this extremely efficient technology. As of now, we have, apart from our lion study, also conducted telemetry exercises on elephant, rhino, snow leopard, otter and wild ass. In the case of the lion, the weight of the radio collar was less than 500 gms., minimal when compared with their average body weight – females 110 kgs. and males 160 kgs.

Without radio telemetry, we would never have been able to gather information on the home range size and habitat use of these lions. There was very little known earlier about the lion’s ecology during the monsoon, when the rain and dense vegetation made it very difficult to track down the animals using traditional methods. Overall, the efficiency of locating lions increased tremendously and saved a great deal of time for me. Moreover, radio telemetry enabled us to monitor collared lions electronically through the night and thus follow their movements. Once we were actually able to locate a terminally ill, collared lioness and, subsequent to her death, conduct a postmortem to ascertain the cause of death. Without radio telemetry it would have been near impossible to recover the carcass in a fresh enough condition to conduct an useful postmortem. Radio signals even enabled us to fish out the radio collar and skeletal remains of a male lion from a reservoir. The lion was, in all probability, poached and later hurriedly dumped into water to escape detection.

An alternate home

Asiatic lions have faced grave threats to their survival through this century. And though their present conservation status seems somewhat secure – with the current Gir lion population hovering around 250, from an all-time low of 20 in the early part of this century – we should not be lulled into complacence. The free-ranging lion population in Gir, has experienced a severe genetic bottle-neck and is positively in-bred today. This is yet another compelling reason to establish a second population base in the wild. Genetic studies have established that the splitting up of a genetically depauperate population can actually lead to a greater genetic diversity in the future as a result of random mutations which might take place at different locations in the split up groups.

The resident, surrounding and visiting human populations have placed great demands on the Gir habitat and the problem of lions attacking people and live-stock outside the forest area has become a burning issue. Taking appropriate action to establish a second free-ranging population of lions would ensure that the Asiatic lions survive, even if the current Gir population were to become extinct on account of human pressure or interference. But this would need very careful planning and considerable political support.

The idea of a second home for the Gir lions is not new. As far back as the 1950s a male and two females were released in Chandraprabha Sanctuary in eastern Uttar Pradesh. This population grew to 11 before it is reported to have disappeared, presumably shot or poisoned. Far from discouraging us, the experiment should prove that it is possible to translocate lions. With the additional data and experience we have now gathered on lion ecology and having perfected the techniques of radio-collaring, monitoring will become much more efficient. This time around we stand a very good chance of succeeding.

What remains is to actually identify a suitable second home for the lions. In this connection we have been in touch with people with extensive experience of the forests and wildlife of India. It seems clear from what we have been able to gather that locating a block of 500 sq. kms. of forest in India, without people and with a sufficient wild prey base is a near impossible task. Of the many sites we considered, the one that held out the greatest promise was the Palpur Kund (Kuno) Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Here all the requirements of the lions appear to be met, but there is one major stumbling block – the presence of tigers. It would be disastrous to release lions in a forest where tigers are already resident. To my mind, moving those tigers out would be justified, given the very real risk to the future of the lions. Even sacrificing the few tigers in Palpur would be justified, if this helps us save the lions. However, it remains to be seen whether India’s conservationists and decision makers have the vision and will to act before we see the back of the last Asiatic lion.

Text and photographs by Ravi Chellam

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XII No. 5, 1992


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