Monday, May 10, 2004, 12:30 PM
Dr. Ravi Chellam is the world’s foremost expert on the Asiatic Lion, once widespread and now restricted to a few hundred individuals in western
Dr. Chellam has been with the Wildlife Institute of India since 1985 and has been on secondment to the United Nations Development Programme in
Illahee has hosted several authors, and numerous scientists, but last week’s event was unusual in that one of the finest environmental writers we know, David Quammen, introduced and conversed with the wildlife biologist, Dr. Ravi Chellam, who inspired, and is featured in, his latest book, Monster of God.
Their relationship started off inauspiciously, when Quammen contacted Dr. Chellam by phone, and after exchanging information was abruptly admonished, “Good God man, I can practically hear the money flowing through the phone line! Haven’t you ever heard of the internet?” Click.
It took a while, but Quammen is now fairly adept at using email. Presumably this new skill has come in handy as he stitched together a meditation on the role of large “man-eating” predators around the world, visiting with brown bear experts in
Along the way we get a thoughtful review of humans’ relation to fearsome predators, from the pelt counting of ancient Mediterranean monarchs to the role that man-eating monsters have played in myth and religion: Gilgamesh, the Leviathan, St George’s dragon, and so on.
But Quammen’s narrative really starts with a city boy from
This is where Dr. Chellam steps in and recounts his story. Chellam is a keen intellect and has a nose for the bottom line, so his first instinct was to make sure he had a reasonable study subject. Were there enough lions to study and could they be observed frequently enough for him to collect meaningful data? His first week or so looking for lions was not reassuring. He found only scat, pug marks and killed prey. When, at the end of his first week in Gir, he finally saw his first lions, they wandered to within 30 meters of him. Now he was reassured that he had a study subject, but a bit nervous about the casual nonchalance of these big beasts.
Dr. Chellam began by introducing us to his lions with a series of slides: males, females, subadults, lying in dry grass, walking along pathways or roads, near water, on a kill. The audience assumed these shots were taken with a telephoto lens until they noticed Dr. Chellam’s shadow in several of the photos, which would put him 10 to 20 meters from an animal that could kill him in a few seconds if it wanted to.
With little comment on this unsettling proximity, Dr. Chellam went on to describe these lions’ habitat, the 1400 square kilometer (a little larger than Multnomah County) Gir Forest Preserve, a scrubby tropical teak woodland, dry for much of the year, with virtually all of its 20 to 40 inches of rain coming during a three month monsoon season, when according to Chellam “you can literally see the grass growing.”
“Forest Preserve” is a little misleading. Livestock, mainly water buffalo, has been grazed in the forest for centuries. And lions have been there even longer, with their population at one time dipping to a few dozen at best (presently there are somewhat more than 300).
A census in the late 1970s showed that only 6000 wild deer were available to the 200 or so lions. Not a recipe for long-term stability. So the Gujarat Forest Department bought out and relocated many of the resident Maldhari herders. The result: wild deer went from 6000 to 150,000 in fifteen years, and the lions’ diet went from 75% livestock to 65-70% wild species.
A few hundred Maldhari herders remain in the Gir forest, typically living with their herds within a thorny enclosure called a “ness” from which they venture each day looking for forage and water. This strategy helps keep lions focused on the more available deer population.
Lions can eat a lot of meat quickly. An adult can gorge on 50 to 60 kg at a feeding and then not eat for almost two weeks. If they don’t completely strip a deer or water buffalo after a kill, they’ll drag it off into a bush for feeding later.
Males and females are not found together very often in Gir. They mate and then go their separate ways. Males do however form coalitions. A typical group of males has a home range of 100 to 140 square kilometers. A typical female group takes 40 to 80 square kilometers. Unlike African lions, males in Gir can actually hunt because the denser vegetation provides them camouflage. Also, the chital deer in the Gir forest are so small that everyone, males and females, has to hunt. Males tend to be the ones to take livestock, where as females won't take that risk.
One of the main thrusts of understanding the biology of the Gir lions is to find a suitable location to introduce a second population, so that there is a back-up should anything (such as disease) befall the Gir lions. Dr. Chellam has found a promising location in the Kuno forest about 1000 km away.
But he has run into two problems. Herders and farmers in Kuno are not thrilled about having a livestock- and human-eating predator introduced (they feel they’ve got all they can handle with the resident tigers). And surprisingly, the Maldhari aren’t too keen to share “their” lions, which they are now proud of. The lions make their corner of
Toward the end of his talk, Dr. Chellam showed a slide of his first photograph of a lion, which is special to him. It was during his first trip to Gir, and when a group of four lions came within 15 meters of him and his guide, a young boy, he was unsure what to do. The boy said, “We should just stay here and watch them.” The lions wandered past unconcerned, but Chellam was so unnerved, he forgot to photograph them until the last one was almost out of sight.
In his four seasons in the field he has had hundreds of encounters with lions, has been charged dozens of times, has really only been seriously threatened once, and has learned to negotiate such a close approach to these lions that the click of his camera shutter sometimes startles them.
Dr. Chellam’s final slide showed two lions ambling down a forest road with a public bus kicking up dust on a few dozen meters beyond. The massage: here in the Gir Forest Preserve lions and people have reached some kind of accommodation. For the Maldharis, lions actually protect the status quo, so a few livestock lost to these predators is the price they pay.
Among the many questions:
Q: Is poaching a problem?
A: No, it is very rare.
Q: How will the Maldhari adapt to modernization?
A: We don’t know but it is happening already, with motorcycles replacing camels, and many children going off to school because the opportunity for herding is limited. We know this: if the Maldharis are eliminated from Gir there will be big changes in the ecosystem. We would like to reduce the daily incursion of livestock from outside the preserve, but we have to do this slowly because lions still depend on livestock for 30 to 35 percent of their diet.
Q: Why don’t Gir lions attack?
A: They do. There are about 12 to 15 attacks and one death per year. Eighty percent of the attacks happen outside the forest. (Lions living outside the preserve are much more dangerous.) The circumstance of an attack usually follows one of four patterns:
The lion finds itself surrounded by people.
The lion takes a livestock animal and a herder attempts to run the lion off.
The lion jumps over a ness and in the ensuing chaos a person is attacked.
A lion directly attacks a person, usually asleep.
Dr. Chellam has noted that lion attacks rise sharply a few years after (and not during) a drought. He thinks that drought years are good ones for lions: plenty of weak and dying prey. But once the weak ones are gone, the few remaining livestock are vigorously defended. So lions and people both want access to this limited resource and both are willing to fight for it.
Q: Might a limited gene pool spell trouble for these lions?
A: They’ve already been through a genetic bottleneck (about 100 years ago) and they seem to be fecund and reproducing well. The bigger worry is some kind of livestock-borne disease, which is why we’d rather have the lions feeding on wild prey.
Q: What role does fire play in the Gir Forest Preserve?
A: Fire has not been carefully studied in Gir. We do know that most fires in the ecosystem are human caused.
A note to the audience: Both David Quammen and Ravi Chellam remarked that they enjoyed their presentation in