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BOOK REVIEW
Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 337-338

The Lions of India


University of Texas at Austin, Department of History, 1 University Station B7000 Austin, TX 78712-0220, USA

Correspondence Address:
Julie E Hughes
University of Texas at Austin, Department of History, 1 University Station B7000 Austin, TX 78712-0220
USA
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


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Date of Web Publication25-Jun-2009
 


How to cite this article:
Hughes JE. The Lions of India. Conservat Soc 2008;6:337-8

How to cite this URL:
Hughes JE. The Lions of India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2019 Dec 10];6:337-8. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/4/337/55788

Divyabhanusinh (ed.). The Lions of India . Delhi and Ranikhet: Black Kite. 2008. 267 pp. INR 395 (Hardcover). ISBN 81-7824-213-3



Although better known for its tigers ( Panthera tigris ), India is also home to the world's last surviving population of Asiatic lions ( Panthera leo persica ). The Asiatic lion represents a subspecies that is distinct from the African variety. Approximately 360 Asiatic lions were left in the wild as of 2005. While its former range extended from Palestine and crossed northern India, encompassing the plains around Delhi and stretching into Bihar, today it is restricted to the Saurashtra peninsula in Gujarat where most live within the Protected Area (PA) of the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. Their numbers have dipped drastically in the past, reportedly below a hundred in the late 1800s. Although recent statistics are cause for cautious optimism, caveats abound. Divyabhanusinh's The lions of India provides an excellent introduction to the ecological status and defining characteristics of these animals, past and present, by bringing together a selection of well-chosen excerpts and brief articles. In addition, the anthology gives a clear picture of the human and political factors involved in lion conservation, while also advising what must be done if we hope to preserve the species.

The Gir Lion Project antedates Project Tiger and the species is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, yet public awareness about the lions has remained low. One of the editor's primary goals in producing this anthology is to encourage casual readers and interested individuals in other fields to learn more about P. leo persica . With this in mind, a particular effort has been made to include informative and accessible excerpts from recent publications on the lions, which for the most part have appeared in specialist and scientific journals with small circulations. Selections, however, are drawn from a wide range of sources. Indeed, The lions of India represents a definitive collection of writings in English on the Asiatic lion over the last 150 years-material that would prove awkward to obtain and unwieldy to wade through, were it not for the editor's intervention.

In his introduction, the editor provides an informative historical overview of the lions and their cultural associations, traversing ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia and the Indus Valley, before moving on to a survey of the animal's symbolic standing in more recent Indian kingdoms, sultanates and empires. The earliest record of lions in India, it seems, are found on the famous steatite seals of the Indus Valley Civilization. Nevertheless, the dearth of early literary sources has led the editor to draw exclusively on British and post-independence writings for inclusion in the anthology. While visual and short written references abound in the ancient and medieval periods, the first substantial commentary did not appear until William Rice's account in 1884, which comprises the anthology's first selection. In addition to numerous pieces from the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society , there are excerpts from the colonial period including hunting memoirs, accounts of lion censuses, recent scientific studies, political analyses and lighter commentaries as well-the prose of which perhaps does most to convey the charisma and power of these animals. The voices of big game hunters, officers of the Indian Civil Service, naturalists, zoologists, a prince of Junagadh, officers of the Indian Forest Service, photographers, conservationists, a geneticist, an historian and even a tea planter are all present here. The resultant variety and brevity of most pieces orients the book towards a wider audience, while still offering something to specialists from most fields.

The editor has chosen pieces that trace the gradual progression from a pre-First World War mentality dominated by views of the lions as trophies and pests, to the current preservationist mode, through modern genetic enquiries and an awareness of the paradoxical influences of regionalism that both help and hinder the lions' chances for survival. Though for the most part arranged chronologically, a few selections are presented out of chronological order. It appears this has been done to group them together with others on the same sub-topic. Perhaps the most captivating portions of the anthology are towards the end, where the overall narrative of the book advances to include recent events, controversies and discoveries. Building on our first taste of translocation attempts received in two selections by S.S. Negi written in the 1960s, the pieces from M.K. Ranjitsinh, Paul Joslin, Ravi Chellam, Stephen J. O'Brien and Mahesh Rangarajan directly address the present day situation. The numerous theories seeking to explain the reasons behind the lions' present dismal situation also are addressed in these pages. Did they lose ground to the more aggressive tiger? Were they hunted to the brink of extinction? Have they been poisoned by local herders seeking an end to cattle losses? Is habitat change to blame?

Reading through the anthology, it is interesting to trace the development of accurate knowledge about Asiatic lions. The earliest pieces date from a time when speculation and hearsay seemed to dominate, with authors variously asserting, for example, that the animals lacked manes to begin with or lost them by catching their fur on thorny shrubs. Recent explanations rely on scientific evidence and point to inbreeding as the cause for this and other traits peculiar to the Asiatic lions, including the distinctive fringe of hair running down the belly. The animals are also distinguishable from their African cousins by their more pronounced tail tufts and somewhat smaller size.

Recent trends discussed in this book include an inversion over the last few decades in the animals' diet from a regime overwhelmingly reliant on domestic animals, to one based on the consumption of wild ungulates. Positive changes in the habitat may have allowed for this. In the same time period, however, people have been encroaching further into the Gir Sanctuary. The editor identifies the growing human population in the area, along with their cattle and cultivation, as 'the Damoclean sword hanging over the Gir and its fauna' (p. 24). For the sake of the lions, he asserts, we must 'move [the human population] out and resettle them sensitively' (p. 24). Those familiar with the progress of similar projects elsewhere will be aware of the difficulties involved. Several selections directly address the condition of the people of the Gir forest, particularly the Maldhari herders and the local pagis or trackers. We even are introduced to the hide collector's niche and the attendant effects on the Gir ecosystem.

As discussed by the editor in his introduction, there is valid concern that a natural disaster or epidemic could strike at any time, such as the one that nearly destroyed the African lion population of Tanzania's Ngorongoro crater in 1962 or the more recent outbreak in 1993 which claimed a further thousand in the Serengeti. The greater genetic diversity and wider range enjoyed by the African lions saved the species both times, but Asiatic lions are inbred and the entire population is concentrated within a vastly smaller area. The excerpt from O'Brien's 'Prides and prejudice' [1] expands on this subject. Because their genetic diversity is exceptionally low, the probability that a disease affecting one animal would likewise affect them all is proportionately greater. Since there is no way to diversify the population short of inter-breeding with African lions, the only way to protect the pure bred Asiatic population is to split it up, thereby minimising the risk of all the animals being exposed. Today, approximately 70 lions already have dispersed from the Gir Sanctuary and are now living outside its borders on a permanent basis, though still in close proximity to the PA. However, the lands they have repopulated are not protected and are connected only poorly with the Gir Sanctuary. This situation leads to difficulties when the lions wish to travel back and forth for breeding or other purposes, and results in a heightened potential for conflict with people. The extent of the PA simply is not large enough to accommodate the present numbers. Yet, a larger population is imperative if their continued existence is to be safeguarded. For these reasons and due to the impracticality of expanding the Gir Sanctuary itself, it has been proposed that a number of lions should be introduced to the Kuno-Palpur site in Madhya Pradesh.

The introduction and several of the following selections make it clear that a paradox is at work here. On the one hand, the immense charisma, symbolic potency and rarity of the animal led the Junagadh state in the colonial period to use its likeness on state imagery and to preserve it. Yet, these very same factors made it attractive to rival princes and European sportsmen, many of whom wanted nothing more than to obtain a trophy. In the final selection by Mahesh Rangarajan, we learn that the animals even today are a point of regional pride, analogous in Gujarat to the position held by the great Indian onehorned rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros unicornis ) in Assam. This has ensured their continued protection within the state, but unfortunately also has led local politicians to block the translocation efforts. In adopting the Asiatic lion as a majestic symbol of the state's singularity and achievement, regionalism is thus being advanced over the needs of the species.

Aside from the valuable introduction, the book is outfitted with useful extras, including a few pages at the end containing biographical notes on the authors of the excerpted pieces, while occasional explanatory notes throughout provide guidance most helpful to those with little or no prior knowledge on the topic. There is no index, but the logical progression of the pieces and the sharply focused subject matter make this a minor complaint. Those seeking visual documentation of these magnificent animals, a more complete history, or further reading on the topic would do well to reference the editor's earlier authored book, The story of Asia's lions [2] . While the present volume works nicely as a companion piece to that publication, it successfully stands on its own as well by providing new commentary and convenient access to an important set of documents.

Effectively bridging the gap between the historian and the conservationist, the editor has produced a work that introduces the Asiatic lion and its past, and also examines the mounting challenges faced by the subspecies in the present. Concentrated more on asking complicated questions than on offering easy answers, the book as a whole provides an intelligent, comprehensive and engaging account of the factors that threaten the Gir lions- genetic, environmental and political. In his introduction and through his editorial choices, Divyabhanusinh makes an eloquent plea for working through these challenges to design viable solutions.

 
   References Top

1.O'Brien, S.J. 2003. Prides and prejudice . In: The tears of the cheetah: And other tales from the genetic frontier (O'Brien, S.J.). Pp. 35-55. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Divyabhanusinh. 2005. The story of Asia's lions. Mumbai: Marg Publications.  Back to cited text no. 2      




 

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