Wildlife & Biodiversity

Madho Rao Scindia’s experiment with African lions in Kuno has lessons for the cheetah project

The Maharaja of Gwalior decided to bring the animals to his princely state solely for the purpose of hunting; it ended in disaster

By Shashank Yadav
Published: Wednesday 14 December 2022

Madho Rao Scindia, the Maharaja of Gwalior, was encouraged by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India to introduce African lions in his domain while shooting tigers around Gwalior in 1904. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Madho Rao Scindia, the Maharaja of Gwalior, was encouraged by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India to introduce African lions in his domain while shooting tigers around Gwalior in 1904. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

In the early twentieth century, a big cat reportedly killed hundreds of people in the princely state of Jhansi, with 20 victims alone reported from a small village called Bansi’.

This reported man-eater ranged across distances between 20 and 50 miles in search of prey. This individual animal had created so much panic among the shaken-up locals that the villagers had imagined it to be a “demon” or an “evil spirit”.

Although leopards and tigers were both at large in this landscape, the animal was “an enormous yellow monster with a great ruff of yellow hair round his neck”, which give up his identity.

Although lame in the foreleg, this individual — a male lion — was thought to be one of the four African lions released in the jungles of the princely state of Gwalior. An African male lion in the Indian wilderness was surely an oddity ie, a marked target for the hunters. However, the individual escaped and was never heard about again.

This unusual feat of introducing African lions in the jungles of central India was undertaken when Madho Rao Scindia, the Maharaja of Gwalior, was encouraged by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India.

Curzon was shooting tigers in the Maharaja’s domains in 1904 when he made the suggestion. Unable to secure Asiatic Lions from Junagadh State, the Maharaja introduced African lions twice in his state, once in 1910 and then in 1920.

On both occasions, the lions were fed live bait before their release. As a result, after they were set free, they resorted to cattle-lifting and eventually man-eating. Thus, a few were shot, followed by their dispersions and then breeding. Man-eating continued and perhaps ended only after all the lions were killed. 

In total, seven lions were released in 1910 and 12 in 1920. Some 15 African lions were reportedly shot in central India within a span of 45 years. The distance between their initial 1910 and 1920 release sites to the 14 sites that reported their presence was 210 km and 180 km, respectively. 

This account is around a hundred years before the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, released African cheetahs in the same regional wilderness of central India.

A correct decision made this time by the translocation committee was the selection of wild cheetahs, in contrast to the earlier Gwalior experiment. However, looking at the African lion translocation programme, three major questions stand in the way.

The first is the threat the cheetahs can face from tigers. If a tiger does catch up to an oblivious cheetah, the chances of the latter coming unharmed are next to nil.

However, since these are wild, they must have faced competition from leopards, spotted hyenas and lions in their African home. Hence, one should expect a cheetah’s instinct and speed to keep it one step ahead of the tiger. 

The second is the suitability of the habitat. The habitats must have changed a lot last since cheetahs roamed this landscape. The general perception is that cheetahs only thrive in vast open grasslands like that of the Serengeti or Etosha.

However, they are known for a wide variety of landscapes like the Okavango and Kruger. Of these, the first one remains as a vast wetland for a considerable part of the year and the latter habitat consists of woodlands to a large extent.

Read Down To Earth’s coverage on the cheetah reintroduction project

So, the question remains: Have the cheetahs been released in a habitat that is suitable for their rehabilitation? A few research papers need to be cited to answer these questions.

A paper published by Bissett & Bernard (2007) in the Journal of Zoology titled Habitat selection and feeding ecology of the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in thicket vegetation: is the cheetah a savanna specialist? challenges the notion of cheetahs being grassland specialists.

The findings of their study concluded that females avoided lions temporally and spatially by hunting at dawn and dusk while positioning their home ranges farther from the lion pride in comparison to the male coalition.

The coalition hunted earlier and later than female cheetahs, with almost half of their kills reported after dark. Plus, the coalition neither showed temporal nor spatial avoidance along with an overlapping home-range with that of the lions.

In essence, there were lower rates of kleptoparasitism (larger and dominant carnivores stealing the kills from smaller carnivores) with longer retention times than those reported elsewhere in Africa.

Similarly, Mills et al (2004) also concluded that as a consequence of the cover provided by the thicket vegetation and woodlands that the probability of cheetah kills being stolen is low. Hence, cheetahs might be more adaptable to habitat variability than is often thought and are not grassland specialists per se. 

And third, along with habitats the challenges of living in multiscale habitat with human disturbance are a lot different than it was a hundred years ago.

However, the conclusions by Klaassen & Broekhuis (2018) are worthwhile to note: “Cheetah presence was best explained by human presence, wildlife areas, semiclosed habitat, edge density and slope. Cheetahs showed avoidance for humans and steep slopes and selected for wildlife areas and areas with high proportions of semiclosed habitat and edge density”.

However, these findings do not deter the importance of grasslands in cheetah conservation. One of the reasons why lions might have dispersed widely is the non-availability of open wild habitats or niche unavailability.

No other animal occupies the cheetah’s niche in India, unlike the tiger which might have occupied the lion’s niche in the woodlands at least.

So, the availability of patches of open grasslands throughout Kuno with self-sustaining populations of reintroduced natural cheetah prey, like the blackbuck and chinkara, is one of the best management strategies that can be employed in light of the overall failure of the African lion translocation programme in the same landscape.

In other words, to prevent large-scale cheetah dispersal from the park into human habitations open grasslands must be created and maintained and stocked with antelope species as a part of human-mediated habitat management.

The adaptability of the cheetah in India can be corroborated in Divyabhanusinh’s book, The End of a Trail.

According to sources, Muslim rulers in medieval India had described three types of cheetahs adapted to its various environments: (1) One from the Indian Desert (Gujarat, Rajasthan), (2) Another from the Deccan; and the last type (3) from the mountains (Divyabhanusinh 2006).

Even up to British times, cheetahs were shot in and around woodlands, including sal forests and grassy glades within them in central India. Some locations include Saranda forests, Jharkhand; Berrambadi Forest, Karnataka; Melghat Forest, Maharashtra; Forests in Coimbatore; and Ghatbori and Hiwarched Forests from Maharashtra (Divyabhanusinh & Kazmi 2019).

In the early 20th century, conservation ecology was in its infant stage and animals were selected purely for hunting. The Maharaja’s prerogative did not include these ecological details.

However, such variables can be quantified in enough detail to ensure the long-term success of the cheetah translocation in India. Only time will tell as to what really happens. However, history has a habit of repeating itself.

Shashank Yadav is a Phd scholar in wildlife ecology and has an interest in natural history

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.