Wildlife & Biodiversity

Once upon a time in India, lions were present from West to East, even south of Narmada: Study

New paper enumerates sightings of lions from Bharuch, Seoni, Hazaribagh, Gumla, Kolkata and Dinajpur by analysing British Era records

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 02 September 2022

Lion hunting by General Godfrey Charles Mundy and hunting party, on elephant between jungles of Kaithal and Hansi. Lion hunting by General Godfrey Charles Mundy and hunting party, on elephant between jungles of Kaithal and Hansi. 

Today, the Asiatic lion is wholly identified with Gir in Gujarat even as there has been a lot of controversy over its translocation. This debate includes the forthcoming arrival of African cheetahs in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, which was orginally intended as a second home for Asiatic lions.

Earlier this year, Down To Earth had recounted that lions were not restricted to Gir in times past. They were, in fact, found all over northwestern, northern, western and central south Asia. The traditional boundaries of their range were the Narmada river in central India and Palamu in eastern india.

Read: Yes, there were lions in Haryana till the early 1800s and the British wiped them out

Now, a new research paper has enumerated instances of Asiatic lion sightings south of the Narmada river and east of Palamu in today’s Jharkhand in 19th century British India. It has suggested that more research is needed in this regard.

The paper by Shashank Yadav, also stated that the number of lions shot during the British period was four to five times more than a previous estimate of 494 by author Divyabhanusinh in 2008.

This indicated that Panthera leo persica was a major part of the fauna and ecological matrix across a range of diverse habitats, the paper said.

The species was primarily centred around the semi-arid and arid regions of the Thar (Rajasthan, Sindh, Gujarat, Haryana), wooded hills and scrub jungles (Madhya Pradesh), the open plains of the rivers Indus (Punjab) and Ganga (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and perhaps Bengal), into the plateau of Jharkhand, it added.

“It was also reported further east of Palamu from the interiors of Jharkhand and south of the river Narmada. Both are beyond the acknowledged boundaries of its distribution in India,” the paper said.

Hence, the species was more widespread than previously acknowledged, and study of its distribution in the medieval era is a subject of ongoing research, it concluded.

Beyond Narmada and Palamu

The Narmada was generally considered the southern limit of the lion’s geographical range in India in the early 20th century, Norman Boyd Kinnear, the Scottish zoologist and ornithologist noted in 1920, Yadav wrote.

However, Thomas Caverhill Jerdon, the British naturalist mentioned lions further south of the Narmada in 1867. Robert Armitage Sterndale, another British naturalist, wrote in 1884 that lions were seen around Seoni between 1857 and 1864.

“He says further: “I frequently heard the native shikaris speak of having seen a tiger without stripes, which may have been of the present species [lions],” Yadav wrote.

During the early 19th century, British hunter Peregrine Herne observed lions to the south of Narmada: “… tigers, lions, and other large animals abounded in the jungles between Elaw [Ilav] and Baroche ‒ a city on the Nerbudda river”.

The paper also mentions instances where lions were sighted, shot or captured to the south and east of Palamu.

Lions were seen occasionally in ‘Dinagepore’ (Dinajpur) in the early 19th century, according to an 1854 report. Another report from 1828 states that a white, tiger-sized pantherine shot in Dinagepore in the early 19th century, could have been a lion.

A lion and a tiger were shot in Calcutta district, according to a report from 1833.

An unknown hunter in The New Sporting Almanack (1845), noted: “The Lion has been shot in Bengal but extremely rarely. Whether it is that they are scarce, or shy, or inhabit only such parts of the upper country as are unfrequented by man, I never took the trouble to discover.”

Wild lions were seen in Ramgurh (Ramgarh), Hazareebagh (Hazaribagh) and surrounding districts in the early 19th century, according to a report from 1854. They were also seen in Ranchi, Gumla and surrounding districts.

Yadav, who spent nearly four years researching on the topic, told Down To Earth that ecology might appear to be static to an ordinary person, but it is a very dynamic process.

The climatic conditions, vegetational regimes and distributional ranges of wild animals change continuously not only on massive geological timescales but even on the scale of centuries to millennia, he added.

“The lion is a highly mobile species that will disperse over huge distances crossing deserts, large rivers, and other formidable barriers. It is not surprising that nearly two centuries earlier lions were being reported by the British, beyond the acknowledged boundaries of its range in India,” Yadav told DTE.

These references were likely the signs of a species at the edge of its ecological range which was supposed to be sparsely distributed. “However, more research is needed on this topic,” Yadav said.

The paper The English hunter and the Hindustani lion: A comprehensive account of the Asiatic Lion Panthera leo persica from 19th century British India was recently published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.

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