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HindustanTimes Fri,24 Oct 2014

Cat’s out of the bag!

Hindustan Times  New Delhi, June 15, 2013
First Published: 00:00 IST(15/6/2013) | Last Updated: 16:59 IST(17/6/2013)

Exotic Aliens; The Lion and the Cheetah in India
Valmik Thapar, Romila Thapar, Yusuf Ansari
Aleph Rs. 599  pp 345

Lions might adorn the Ashoka Pillar but neither they nor cheetahs are native to India, says Valmik Thapar. HT presents an excerpt from the prologue to his new book that convincingly makes this argument.

Captain Thomas Williamson, the author of the epic book about India’s animals, Oriental Field Sports, says that in the 1780s, while pig-sticking, one was likely to encounter tigers that had strayed into the open, but never lions, or for that matter, cheetahs... he believed that there were no lions in Hindustan...

The debate about the origins and prevalence of lions and cheetahs in India must have been vigorous in the eighteenth century and later but I was intrigued by the fact that... in the twentieth century, most serious observers just took it for granted that lions and cheetahs were indigenous to India… Why is it that the comments about lions and cheetahs and their rarity remain unchanged over hundreds of years, especially from people who travelled across India in search of game?

Why are pictures of lions as hunting trophies so rare and the few that exist tend to have been taken after 1886 in Gir? Where are the cheetahs in the hunters’ bags? After all, according to commentators, hunters were responsible for destroying both these species.

As I researched my thesis, I grew convinced that I had stumbled upon the biggest myth perpetrated about these two species in India. Tigers and leopards were everywhere in historical records... but lions and cheetahs were almost invisible...  What I believe — and this is what my co-authors and I explore throughout the book — is that lions from Persia and Africa were being imported into the country 2,500 years ago (and then on) to meet the demand of Indian royals, and being bred and propagated as court symbols and for hunting; this imported animal was erroneously called the Asiatic lion.

The story of the cheetah is much the same but its inability to breed in captivity meant that many more had to be imported. Both species in India were genetic mixtures of animals brought in from elsewhere, and their own inbreeding; their genetic makeup can be best described as a khichdi of genes...

As I am not a geneticist, let me quote Stephen J. O’Brien who, in his eye-opening book, Tears of the Cheetah: The Genetic Secrets of Our Animal Ancestors says, ‘[The] physical traits in Asian lions are manifestations of extremely severe inbreeding in their very recent past. The evidence for our conclusions was encrypted in their genes.’ He writes that Asian lions from the zoo or Gir forest had ‘virtually zero genetic diversity’ compared to the African lion...

Stephen O’Brien was very clear that ...The bottleneck that compromised the Gir lions’ genetic variation dated back not just one century but three millennia! Whatever might have happened around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago to cause severe inbreeding in the lion, this was also the time where I believe the lion as an exotic animal entered India and was propagated by man…

Romila Thapar states: ‘... If there were lions here, why do they not occur on Indus seals...? It would seem that there were no lions in this area during the period of the Harappan cities...’ If there were no lions 4,500 years ago and they remained rare in the periods that followed... then it must have been an exotic import all along as there is no gradual decline in the species.

I believe that the lion came to India just before or with Alexander’s invasion of India around the third or fourth century BCE. It was from this time onwards that lions were bred, either in designated hunting parks or royal zoos, just like the Gir lion was bred in the late nineteenth century.

The breeding of lions in ancient times was for the hunt, or to keep in menageries or in the court of the king as symbols of royal power...

The evidence that my co-authors and I have unearthed... has duly underlined the basic premise that I began this book with — that the Indian (or Asiatic) lion and the Indian (or Asiatic) cheetah are not distinctive subspecies but are exotic aliens that live (or lived) in the land of the tiger...


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