Belling the Cat

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 37 No. 12, December 2017

By Stotra Chakrabarti

About half past 12, the sun merciless upon our backs, temperature just a degree short of a half-century and not a single upright shade of respite, as we stood on a rugged barren hillock in search of a slightly-less noisy but more rhythmic beep from the radio-receiver. However, all we could hear was the lifeless static of the radio! It had been 14 days since we had released this lioness after fitting her with a radio-transmitter, and she had miraculously disappeared from the face of the earth! We had been trying to locate her, day-in and day-out, with an antenna attached to a radio-receiver as our main weapon, but there was not a single blip on the radar. We were tired, confused and at a dead-end. About a fortnight ago, we had captured four adult lionesses living outside the Gir forests in Gujarat, the last-remaining stronghold of the Asiatic lion, and fitted them with GPS radio-collars to study their way of life in a landscape dotted with humans and lion-unfriendly development. The collars provided us with the cats’ location through a ‘here I am’ very high frequency (VHF) beep emitted every second. This signal could be tuned into through a radio-receiver and captured from even two to three kilometres away. The beeps helped us home-in to these regal cats and follow them, as they prolifically (yet perilously) survived in close proximity to humans. With our earlier experience in tracking lions within the Protected Area (PA), we had thought this task would be fairly easy even outside the PA, but, we were mistaken! All the technological nitty-gritties had failed us and exhaustion and fatigue were taking over man and machine.

Not an easy quest

I sat down in the shade of our four-wheel drive and looked at my assistants, a team of determined and experienced lion-trackers who have bled-and-sweated alongside my professor (scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India), Dr. Y. V. Jhala (see this December issue's "Being my Father's Daughter"), in his lion studies that spanned over 20 years. Over the last two weeks we had tried our luck against the June-sun in Gujarat and clambered-up every thorny vantage point on our path to catch the faintest of VHF signals. This was my first stint with lions outside their normal refuge, the protected forests, and my ideas of their possible hideouts were nothing but inappropriate. I had been taught the ways of searching and observing animals in forests devoid of people, but finding an elusive carnivore among the hustle-and-bustle of people and roads, took a lot more than bush-craft, grit and patience. Presently about one-third of the total lion population live outside the formal boundaries of protected forests. I relied on my assistants who were familiar with the area since the days the first lions moved out of Gir to colonise this densely-human-populated eastern landscape of Saurashtra in southern Gujarat. However, this lioness had them puzzled too. We had planned to start our day-night monitoring sessions, where we literally lived with lions while we followed them 24 hours a day to document behavioural observations round the clock. For that, the lioness needed much prior habituation to our presence and our knowledge of their frequented places. But for this, I first needed to find the lioness.

A collared lioness and her male cub offer their morning prayers at a village temple, which would soon be bustling with humans. Photo Courtesy: Stotra Chakrabarti

Not a single soul was out in the heat while we drove back to our temporary base about 45 km. away. Even the herders were taking a nap lying close to their prized cattle and buffaloes. Back at our camp, perplexed, empty handed and out of options, I dropped the idea of a cooling shower as water from the over-head tank was steaming hot. Instead, I had a brief lunch with my assistants, who tried to lift my spirits with their lion-stories and how they had lost collared individuals for days. The stories had little effect on me; afterall it was my maiden brush with futile attempts of radio-tracking! July would soon be upon us with her fair share of drenching rains, making fieldwork all the more difficult in the slush and profuse vegetation. It was important that we locate the lioness soon, as an individual with a collar in a human-dominated landscape begets more responsibility on the research team. As I sat contemplating on our future course of action, our lead assistant Bhiku, a man in his mid-40s with enviable composure and skill in the jungle, walked up to me and said, “Aaj rewa dejo Saheb, kal havar thi naowe-kas thi chalu kariye, mali jahe.” He wanted me to drop the evening-night search, and start afresh next morning. Given that both muscle and diesel needed a break from the continuous search, I agreed.

Tracking a lioness

Early next morning, at 5:30 a.m., with renewed spirits pumped up by steaming cups of tea, we set out before the last remnants of the pleasant night-breeze were transformed into a blazing wave. We decided to begin our quest again from where we had collared her: Jabal village in Amreli district. We stopped three times on our way, looking for signals. I stood up on our vehicle-roof extending the telemetry antenna, trying to maximise elevational advantage in an otherwise flat agricultural expanse. My assistants kept a wary eye for any pugmarks on the fields before the bullocks began their morning ploughing routine (farmers had begun to sow their crops anticipating early showers). The radio-receiver sprang to life incessantly, only to emit crackling statics, but no beeps! We stopped a few farmers heading back from their night shift, guarding standing crops from nilgai and wild pigs to ask if they had seen a lioness with two cubs. The farmers in the landscape are quite welcoming of lions and keep a regular look out for them as the latters’ mere presence helps to keep nilgai and wild pigs at bay. With no affirmative answers, we moved on towards the highway, under which flew the main water-channel of the area. The channel was dry barring a few puddles and my assistants went down to explore for tracks on the sand while I tuned into the radio. Tick, tick and it was gone, back to the gurgling noises again! I turned rapidly towards Ismail, another of my assistants in eagerness that he might have heard it too, and from his expression it was clear that he did. In the ensuing minutes, we tried repeatedly but our attempts were not answered. Could this be it or was it just a figment of our imagination? 

The vehicle is used by the author as a vantage point to maximise elevation in an attempt to capture VHF signals. Photo Courtesy: Gir Research Team
A collared lioness drags her kill out of the thickets after the team gained her confidence by following and observing her quietly for several weeks. Photo Courtesy: Stotra Chakrabarti 

Finally, with some tangible hope we climbed an adjacent rocky outcrop and tried once again. Yes! The beeps were faint but very much real. We fathomed that she was over a few kilometres away, towards a series of rugged hillocks infested with scraggly mesquite, locally called as ‘bid’. With an antenna in one hand, a stick in the other and the receiver pendulous on my neck, we briskly followed the signals along a livestock trail. Covering the distance as fast as we could, we suddenly stumbled upon a strong stench of a kill as we neared the hillocks. She had possibly dragged one of the unguarded village livestock into the thickets. As we inched forward, we could hear the beeps even without the antenna being attached to the receiver. Our lady was possibly within 50 m.! Pinpointing in the direction of the signal-emitter, I slowly let-go of the antenna and grabbed the stick tightly in my hands. A lioness out of sight is dangerous but a lioness out of sight with cubs is doubly so! Our next steps were met with a series of angry growls from just behind the closest bush and we knew she would charge if pressed further. We stood there, adrenaline rushing in our veins, while Bhiku muttered from between his teeth pointing towards a small gap in the otherwise dense thicket. 

A lioness stutters to her feet after radio-collaring, still disoriented under the effect of the dissociative anaesthetic, while other pride members inspect her new necklace. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Y. V. Jhala

A tuft of black-hair twitched as if pulled by invisible strings and I recognised it to be the tail-tuft of a lioness. The growls stopped and the tuft vanished, followed by the soft crackle of twigs when suddenly a golden head popped out of the bush, ears tensed, lips curled and eyes cutting through us! She was barely 10 m. away and she meant business! With no time to lose we thrashed our sticks and shouted loud, the only tried-and-tested deterrent of a lion charge, and after a few minutes of growls and hisses, which felt like an eternity, she obliged. She stopped, turned and vanished into the thickets as fast as she had appeared. One lesson that I have learnt from my supervisor and assistants was “never show your back to a charging lion, or chances of survival would go down from slim to none!” 

Over the next several hours, we slowly gained her confidence as we could see her two cubs peeping behind their mother’s body, who lay sprawled on her back just beside a half-eaten cattle carcass. I was happy and satisfied. It was in these moments when one felt dejected and lost, that the true meaning of perseverance and patience could be found. I never had felt more alive than while listening to an angry lioness growling at close quarters. I guess it is for such moments of indescribable exultation that we, all my fellow wildlife researchers and biologists, painstakingly work in harsh conditions 

Learning from lions

That was June 2014. For the next three years, we followed her persistently (even changed her collar once in between) and discovered so much about this fierce mother, who defended her cubs from intruding males, walked past villages and people sleeping outside their huts, hunted down nilgai and wild pigs, let go of her independent cubs to solicit a younger male and raise another litter. With a lot of patience, uncountable nervous moments and scares, numerous thorns in our boots and a few in our feet, bruised forearms and tattered caps, we gained the confidence of all our study lions, although sporadic charges and their occasional mood-swings kept us on our toes. Such familiarisation helped us gain acceptance in their families to an extent that we could sip hurriedly made tea while they snored peacefully a few metres away in the day and follow them through the long nights when they roamed the countryside as whitish ghosts in the dimly-lit darkness, in search of prey.

Long familiarisation with the study-area lions and their groups helped the author and his assistants to observe them up-close and personal. Photo Courtesy: Gir Research Team

I gathered a lot more than just data from these beautiful cats who taught me the power of patience, compassion and bonding as we witnessed in awe the many secrets of a carnivore sharing space with its biped hetero-specifics. Information from these four lionesses (and their groups) and previously-collared individuals from the landscape helped us slowly join the bits of the puzzle about how a large carnivore co-exists with humans. We could infer that lionesses inhabiting outside the PA used areas of about 110 sq. km., twice as large as their cousins living within PAs. Male lions ranged over areas three times larger than their PA counterparts. This was primarily because of the patchiness of available resources (food and refuge) in the human-dominated landscape, which required them to have large territories to encompass their minimum requirements. Non-cultivated and relatively less disturbed green patches of more than three to four square kilometres were ideal for breeding lionesses to hide and raise their cubs, crucial for sustaining a viable lion population in the landscape. The lions used thorny thickets, as small as one hectare, as day-time refuges to conceal themselves from people and roamed around human-settlements and crop-fields at night in search of nilgai, wild pigs and unguarded livestock. These day-time refuges were crucial in maintaining human-lion interface to a bare minimum although both lived in very close quarters of each other, and thus, were powerful ingredients of an exemplary coexistence. Though we frequently found lions close to humans, only infinitesimal of those (<0.05 per cent) resulted in aggressive encounters between the two. The lions sustained themselves mostly by scavenging on dead livestock and actively predating on unproductive un-owned live ones and nilgai. Consequently, depredation on productive livestock was low and very promptly compensated (monetarily) by the Forest Department. The losses thus, have not yet made a dent on the human-coffers, and lions still thrive outside the PA within socially acceptable limits.

After four years of studying lions up-close and personal in people’s backyards, I cannot stop but marvel at the adaptability and character of these magnificent predators: tolerant, flexible and so very patient. The story of the Asiatic lions stands as a conservation success because of these traits, and the commendable efforts of the Forest Department and the local people. The people of Gujarat have shown incredible respect and reverence for these tawny cats, unrivalled in any corner of the world for any other carnivore. Owing to this, the lions have bounced back from the abyss to a handsome 500 plus individuals while extending their range from just within Gir to an additional 20,000 sq. km. of the agro-pastoral Saurashtra landscape. Lions presently occupy areas, which were out of bounds for them for the last two centuries! However, every time I see a pride of lions cross a highway or move into human settlements, kill livestock and or get into uncomfortable encounters with humans or a Prosopis thicket being mowed down to give way to a high-fenced resort; I feel a shudder in my spine thinking about the daunting task that lies ahead of us to reconcile booming development of a progressive state with conservation of the last lions of Asia.

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