“Why lions…?” 

Many people have asked me this question. They are interested to know why I took a leap across the Western Ghats – a biodiversity hotspot that offers a range of hypotheses and fascinating topics of study – and chose instead to study lions. How did a girl from Chennai land up in the semi-arid forests of Gir in Gujarat? 

It is indeed surprising, because many years ago when I took the decision to study lions dazzling visuals of big cats weren’t yet being aired on TV to capture everyone’s attention. Indeed, what had caught my imagination was the fascinating literature on how evolutionary drivers of fitness (the ability to leave viable offspring) and competition play out among lion groups in the open plains of Africa, and in turn, determine the behaviour of predator and prey. 

In 2002, at the time I started doing research on the lions of Gir, the few studies on big cats in India, (mostly lions and tigers; there were almost no detailed study on leopards then) focused largely on ecological data related to their home range, diet and movement. In a given habitat, an ecological study attempts to find out how much the study animal – tiger or lion – moves in a day. What is the extent of its home range? What is the composition of its diet? Is its preferred prey the most abundant of all available prey species in that habitat? Such studies thus record straightforward information or data and do not fully reflect the complexity of life.

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The semi-arid forests of Gir, home of the Asiatic Lion. Photograph: Manish Vaidya

For instance, how long does a particular animal stay in a particular home range and in what circumstances does it vacate this area? How are resources of prey, water and denning sites shared or defended? How do tigers or lions interact among themselves? What are the dynamics or turnover within the population and changes associated with access to these resources? These questions are more interesting and reveal how animals survive. They tell us more about the strategies they adopt to outdo each other in the competition for food and mates. Carnivores have a tendency to form groups in response to strategies related to kinship (relatedness) and fitness, or the environment and its resources. Based on this, there could be foraging groups, feeding groups, population groups or breeding groups. These could range from loose aggregations to strongly committed social groups.

It was with great excitement that I conceived a study along these very lines, to understand land use, land tenure and life history strategies of Asiatic Lions. It was almost a first attempt at using behaviour sampling protocols for modelling social behaviour in the study of a large carnivore. Lions are the only social or group-living cats, so understanding dimensions of resource and space-use for a group added more complexity to my research. Specifically, I set out to understand the life history strategies of male lions in Gir. Through this article, I would like to introduce you to the fascinating world of the only social cats in the wild.  

Asiatic Lions vs. African lions

Asiatic Lions were considered to be a sub-species (Panthera leo persica) slightly differing from their African counterparts (Panthera leo leo). The major discernible difference is that the mane of the male African lion is more prominent than that of the Asiatic Lion. However, recent studies have made changes to this differentiation. Now, two sub-species of lions are recognised, and West, Central and Asiatic Lions are classified as one-sub species (Panthera leo leo) differing from the Eastern and Southern African lion populations (P.l. melanochaita). These are technical details, however, what is important to note is that while African lion populations are found across Africa in varying habitats, the only population of the Asiatic Lion survives in the Gir Sanctuary and National Park (Gir PA) in Gujarat, in western India. Asiatic Lions are protected as a Schedule I animal under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and have been categorised as Endangered in the IUCN red list.

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The Asiatic lion has a less prominent mane than its African counterpart. Photograph: Bhushan Pandya

The Gir forest of Gujarat is a dry deciduous habitat mostly dominated by teak, zizyphus and acacia. Apart from lions, a high density leopard population also survives here. A rich assemblage of prey namely, chital, sambar, chousingha and chinkara is found here. Of these, chital and sambar are the most abundant and dominant prey. Domestic prey in the form of livestock is also found within and outside the Gir PA.  

The type of habitat and prey both influence the social structure of lions. Indeed, in Africa, where larger prey like wildebeest has to be hunted, group sizes of lions are bigger. Also, in open habitats such as the Serengeti, where the predator is conspicuous, surrounding the prey from all sides and attacking it is a very clever strategy. There, the males, with their manes, are conspicuous and not half as successful if they were to hunt on their own. Therefore, male lions in the open plains hunt and feed with the pride (female group).  

On the other hand, in forested habitats like Gir, it is possible to stalk and ambush. Here, the most abundant prey is chital, which weighs about 45-50kg and is obviously not adequate food to be shared among a big group of lions. Smaller groups for smaller prey seem to be the best choice. Male lions need not align with the female groups and seem quite happy to be on their own – in scientific parlance, they are successful hunters by themselves. Another advantage of doing this seems to be that they are free to choose mates from two or more prides. 

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A pair of lionesses at rest. Photograph: Meena Venkataraman

Many people, mostly men, are eager to clarify that among lions male lions sit back and wait till the females successfully hunt down prey. They want to know if is it true that when the females make a kill, the males come and feed on the “lion’s share” before the rest of the family does. This is only partly true, that too for one particular lion habitat, where in fact males are ‘served’ because they are sloppy hunters. For the men who vicariously want to take delight in the ways of the royal patriarch among lions, this truth may be a bit disappointing. However, they could at least take heart in the fact that male lions in forested habitats have claim over many females.

So these observations are pages from my PhD thesis. When I arrived, I expected to see big groups interacting with each other, fighting over kills and mates but it turned out that smaller sub-sets of lion groups were operating at a more subtle level; unravelling these interactions was quite a challenge. Nevertheless, my field days for the next five years were spent drawing individual lions and making notes of their movements and behaviours. Each day would begin with a search for the lions with the help of pugmark tracks, roars, and cues from local people. This could take anywhere from half an hour to 3-4 hours; some days of tracking were entirely unsuccessful. 

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Both lionesses and lions have their own strategies to optimise cub survival. Photograph: Manish Vaidya

Once the lion(s) was found, whether or not it was rude, kind, skittish, belligerent or indifferent, I would have to have a clear view of his or her whiskers through my spotting scope. These patterns are important for the identification of individual lions, as the whisker spots, just like human fingerprints, are unique to each individual lion. The group composition, interactions among the group members and activity for the rest of the day would also have to be diligently noted down. Back at the field-station, this data – particularly the individual identification logs – needed to be carefully sorted and filed. Thankfully, I also had a few radio-collared lions that could be tracked more easily, and with these animals it was possible to have day-night follows. At the end of over five years, I had, it seemed, a lot of information on the social life of lions.

Group Living

Lionesses and their cubs live in groups called prides and are joined for defined periods by male groups called coalitions. Females defend resources such as prey, water, and safe refuges for raising cubs. During their associations with the prides, males of the coalition mate and sire all cubs of the pride. When they join a pride, if there are already dependent cubs from an earlier litter, these are killed to ensure the lionesses are ready to mate and raise a new litter with the incumbent males. When a male cub becomes a sub-adult at two-and-a-half or three years of age, it is forced to disperse out of its natal territory. It is likely to leave or disperse with another sibling or male from the same pride and form a coalition of its own. In some cases, the male sub-adult could also join up with dispersing males from other prides. In a year or more, these male coalitions take over another pride after they are successful in evicting the resident males. Females at first aggressively resist the change in their pride when new males fight their way into their lives, but soon come around to accepting the newcomers as part of the group.

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Females defend resources such as prey, water, and safe refuges for raising cubs.Photograph: Manish Vaidya

Usually, the optimum size for a male group would be the number of males that is likely to help each other to maximise both feeding and reproduction by operating together. A coalition should be good enough to take over and maintain a pride territory and at the same time have optimum reproductive opportunities. One or more partners is required to be able to evict a male group from a pride territory but at the same time, this partnership should not be at the cost of mating opportunities. In other words, more coalition partners should not dilute the fitness factor. Inter-male coalition and intra-male coalition competition – competition between and within male groups – seem to be equally important in influencing this decision. 

To take over, to establish control over their prides and have a prolonged stay in the same range is the challenge that all male lions face during their lifetime. The cycle is completed when after a few years of association with prides they are in turn evicted by other coalitions. Males end up as nomads at the fag-end of their lives. In a strife-ridden existence of about 13-15 years in the wild, raising cubs to recruitment age has to be achieved somehow by male lions. Coalition formation is therefore a strategy that increases fitness and ensures mating opportunities. If there is a large enough pride of females, this becomes easier to achieve.

Now, all this information is what we know from studies on African lions.

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In Gir, it makes more sense for males to defend pride territories rather than individual prides. Photograph: Manish Vaidya

What about Asiatic Lions? At the end of my study, I could clearly see that the lions of Gir have their own unique social organisation. It appears that 2 to 3 males are the ideal group size in these forested habitat conditions and for males, it makes more sense to defend pride territories than individual prides. In other words, if males were to control a larger demarcated area, then they would automatically be defending two or more prides within. The pride themselves may have at the most four adult lionesses. Both males and females play out their strategies well enough, and it turns out that the cub survival, or recruitment, is comparable, if not better than those reported for lion habitats in Africa.

The endearing Patnisar sub-adults

Thanks to the wonderful technology of radio-telemetry, I had the opportunity to continuously follow a two-male sub-adult coalition during my study. At the time however, I was keener on understanding the strategies of adult territorial males and not too interested in investing much time on sub-adults. Nevertheless, very soon I came to love these two young vagrants as they slunk around in alien territories and kept moving restlessly about 15-20km in a day. At this stage of life, for sub-adults, the mane is sparsely developed. Very much like boys at adolescence, the voices of sub-adults are not fully developed and they do not vocalise much. Their initial attempts at roaring are also weak – an observation would amuse my field assistants and me. An adult male’s roar is a full-throated prolonged roar; these two males would make a fine start and begin to roar, but it would end up as a whimper towards the end! Hearing this, our team would go into fits of laughter. These experiences count for the fun times in an otherwise tough life running after energetic youngsters.

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A well camouflaged male sub-adult listening in rapt attention. Photograph: Bivash Pandav

I noticed that these males were respectful of not expressing themselves in the presence of adults. They would constantly be on the move and make sure that they kept out of the way of intolerant adult territorial males. Wisely, they also engaged themselves in feeding and gaining strength. Within a year, the sub-adults turned into prime age adults, with beautiful golden-brown manes and a roar that after many rehearsals, announced that they had arrived. Soon enough, a challenge to territorial males filled the air. As I mentioned earlier, gaining territory happens usually by ousting other resident males and wresting control of prides. The sub-adults (now adults) established their territory and in some way, gave some relief to us diligent fieldworkers. I completed my field study in 2007, when these Patnisar sub-adult males, so named after their natal range, located in the central part of the Gir Protected Area, finally moved towards the western end of the PA, approximately 30km from their original range. Since then, they’ve successfully taken over pride territories and sired many cubs thereafter. Their new range is part of the tourism zone and bustles with human activity. When I visited again after 2-3 years, I heard that they were very popular with tourists and were a photographer’s delight in the tourism zone of Gir west. 

Whose strategy is it anyway?

He is king, a family man, a considerate sibling. She is the one associated with the “pride”, she is resourceful and also encourages male bonding. So, who rules in Gir? I feel that both lions and lionesses have their own strategies that are tuned to optimise cub survival. It is very clear that maintaining territory, pride and coalition interaction and strategies are extremely important for the survival of lions. Anyone who is familiar with how evolution operates knows that natural selection favours the most stable strategy. Animals are constantly tweaking their lives to be able to adjust and survive successfully, ultimately to be able to raise viable offspring.

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Habitat changes have implications for cub survival. Photograph: Manish Vaidya

It must be obvious to many of my readers that anthropogenic influences and man-induced habitat changes would disrupt these subtle balances of nature and have implications for both adult and cub survival. As we see more changes in a habitat that has reached its carrying capacity for lions (for the Gir Sanctuary this is about 300 lions in an area of 1500sq.km), monitoring the changes in male and female associations will be a challenging and interesting topic of research.

So, why have I spent more than five years of my life following lions? It is quite obvious, isn’t it? I am sure I have motivated many of my readers to learn more about lions. For others, here is my short and sweet answer to that often-repeated question:

“Madam, why you studied lions?”

Me: You see...the lion is the king of the jungle. Every king has his subjects. I wanted to make the king my subject.