Studying lions was purely coincidental for me. Back in 2012, I did my Master’s dissertation conducting feeding experiments on wild cats in a zoo to delve into their optimal diet-choice. The zoo had the Gir forests, the last home of Asiatic lions, in its backyard. During my dissertation, I occasionally accompanied the Wildlife Institute of India’s research team, who has been studying lions in Gir for the past two decades. As I saw more of these tawny cats and heard field experiences from our research trackers, I realized something was amiss with these lions. Their social behaviour did not match with that of their African cousins. Males and female Asiatic lions live separately and that is strikingly different from what I had read and watched about pride-living African lions. This difference in sociality amongst lions of the two continents intrigued me to such an extent that I dedicated the next five years of my life to tailing the last lions of Asia.
As I started my position in this long-term project as a doctoral fellow, I had the benefit of an extended history of individual information on these lions. With individuals identified, I started my data collection, often observing lions for long durations. Such monitoring frequently brought us in close contact with lions, and we experienced countless nervous moments. In one such incident I found myself in the middle of a battlefield! I was observing a coalition of two male lions (males form partnerships of 2-5 individuals) feeding peacefully on a sambar (deer) kill, until the relaxed scene turned into a whirl of roars and growls!
Two new males had invaded their territory and the resident males were quick to respond. The very next moment me and my assistants found ourselves bewildered and sandwiched between four angry and hostile lions. Our most experienced field assistant, Bhiku, hissed “climb a tree, fast!” and before I could react, both my assistants were up on the canopy (if at all there was one in a semi-arid forest). I clambered up on the first tree I could find, surprised at my own agility! We looked on in awe as the males fought underneath, and then just as suddenly as they had materialized they were gone. Only then did I realise that in this entire rush I had selected a tree studded with thorns! I was bruised everywhere – from my hands to places very implicit – but that was surely better than the angry claws and fangs of a 200 kg predator. My observations on lion feeding-behaviour revealed that Asiatic male lions formed hierarchical coalitions with one male being dominant over his other partners, unlike their egalitarian African cousins.
Food is the not the only thing that individuals respond to. ‘Sex in the jungle’ is another crucial element which decides who’s the boss! Along with food-appropriation, I started observing lions at their most intimate moments: when, where and with whom they mated. 9,300 hours of lion intimacy observations made me realize that testosterone in a male’s head is deadlier than an arrowhead laden with poison.
Of all the 134 mating events we observed, only a couple were when we were not charged. A male lion consorting with his female considers even a moving bush as a potential rival, and poor us, we got swamped in their emotional frenzy. Once, we were observing a mating pair and my curiosity led us to venture very close to them. The inevitable happened and the male charged. We stood our ground and thrashed our bamboo-canes furiously, and fortunately he stopped. ‘Show your back to a charging lion and your chances of survival would go down from slim to none’– a lesson learnt from my advisor and our research assistants has kept me alive for the last five years of working with these lions!
All the mating data told us that in every coalition, the male who was dominant in feeding was the boss when it came to mating rights with a receptive lioness – again very different from African lions where male coalition partners share such rights with remarkable equity. Such a contrasting social structure between Asiatic and African lions could possibly have evolved because of a smaller “dining-dish” (Asiatic lions’ main prey is chital, a deer around 45 kg) and less mating opportunities (Asiatic lion females live in groups of 2-4) compared to that of African lions. It could be this resource crunch that might have pushed the two sexes to stay separately in the Asian subspecies, as heightened between-sex competition is detrimental to individual wellbeing.
It was not just tangible scientific information that I gathered from these lions. I learnt a lot of patience and adaptability, watching them snore peacefully for hours on end, and then suddenly a miraculous hunt! As I delved more into lion societies and drew parallels to other social mammals like dolphins and chimpanzees, I understood more about how young and naïve human society is. We lack the intricacies in our social system, which natural- and sexual- selection have polished to perfection in these animals.
Stotra Chakrabarti is a Senior Research Fellow at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehra Dun.