Of lions & cheetahs

Of lions & cheetahs

Of lions & cheetahs

The large carnivores of India do not seem to be out of controversy. Not a single day passes without news about the tigers in the media. Two other issues related to large carnivores that hit headlines recently are the translocation of lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh and reintroduction of cheetahs into India.

Now in this new book, noted wildlife conservationist Valmik Thapar, and historians of repute, Romila Thapar and Yusuf Ansari, have in their own way cast doubts upon nativity of the Asiatic lion and the Indian cheetah, raising eyebrows of wildlife historians and conservationists. Thapar, who has penned most parts of this volume, has several books and wildlife documentaries to his credit. Romila Thapar, an eminent historian, has authored the first chapter, setting the stage for the debate on lions, whereas Ansari, who specialises in Moghul history, has written two chapters.

Through this book, that contains nice photographs and produced to high quality, the authors try to fathom the missing links in our understanding of the two predators. The Asiatic lion is currently found only in the state of Gujarat, and the cheetah was extinct from the country during the late 1940s.

The authors believe that the lions came to India just before Alexander’s invasion from Balkh in Turkmenistan, and the cheetah was imported as a royal pet. Both these animals are believed to have escaped into the wild and a feral population was created.

Lions, according to the authors, were imported through cargo and diplomatic channels that were linked to North India and further bred for sport before being released into designated hunting grounds.

The authors use evidences such as the conspicuous absence of lions in the relics and ancient artefacts from the Harappan civilisation whereas the tiger and the rhinoceros are conspicuously present. They have also referred the vast narrative archives of the pre-Islamic times, through Islamic dynasties, Mughal Empire and the early days of the British Raj which speaks little of the lions unlike the tiger. Lions were rarely encountered in the wild and their numbers were miniscule as part of the hunting bags which is another argument used as a testimony that lions were not indigenous to the country. Even these hunts were organised in carefully managed private hunting parks that were stocked with species such as the lion and the cheetah for the royal families to hunt.

The docile nature of lions in India is due to their habituated upbringing in menageries about which the authors quote experiences of several hunters.

On ecological grounds, Valmik Thapar, the lead author, highlights the lack of suitable records of encounters of lions and nilgai, the largest Indian antelope, which would have been the suitable prey of lions in the Indian grasslands. Thapar also argues that it would have been impossible for the lions to survive in much of the Indian jungles due to the presence of a more powerful and agile predator, the tiger.

Similarly, the cheetahs came into the country as gifts or tributes from Africa and Persia. The authors bolster their claim with evidences about the absence of cheetah art until the medieval period, and the mention and visual depiction of cheetahs from 12th century onwards. They continue that the grasslands of India that is largely uneven and unsuitable for the cheetahs also hosted wolves, hyenas, tigers and leopards, making the life of the fragile cheetah impossible.

The third front on which the authors argue is the lack of documentation of these two carnivores by chroniclers and travellers.

Nevertheless, the authors agree to the fact that there is no conclusive genetic evidence to prove or disprove their theory. However, geneticists have said that African and Asiatic lions and cheetahs had been separated thousands of years ago.

History has to grapple with science chiefly with biogeography if it has to make its point based on species distribution and historical biogeography. Bio-geographers could pose serious questions about the theories of the authors. India is part of the Ethiopian biogeography where similar species including gazelles, antelopes, small and large carnivores are found across continents. Hence, convincing bio-geographers from this perspective would have further enriched this book.

Similarly, ecologists would also argue that any species at the edge of its range would always be at low densities. Thus the lion which is at the western edge of its range is perhaps at low numbers due to this reason which would contradict the views of the authors.
Overall, this book provides a platform for discussion between wildlife conservationists and historians as other historians have given their own evidences, both historical and ecological, about the lion and the cheetah in India.