around during daytime to conserve energy, Lions can be found in small
family groups called 'Pride'. The pride includes cubs of varying ages -
three month old to sub adults of a year and half, to two year old. Young
ones have spotted markings on their woolly coats that give them excellent
camouflage in the bushy undergrowth. The cubs are deprived of sight when
they are born. Their eyes open only after a few days. This keeps them
huddled together and prevents them from wandering off and getting killed
when the mother is away finding food.
The cubs usually nurse (drink milk) for about seven months and may start eating meat at three months of age. Cubs join the pride when they can move well enough to keep up with the constant activity - usually after eight to ten weeks. At that time, a Lioness will nurse or guard any cub, not just her own.
The young cubs are alert and somewhat mischievous. They play games with other cubs, are curious about rustling leaves, butterflies, bags and anything that moves in their vicinity. They chase and wrestle with each other and stalk their elders tails. They sometimes sink their sharp teeth into the rump of an unsuspecting Lion, quickly earning a firm reprimand by way of an angry snarl or a swat that may send them reeling some distance. Play is supposed to strengthen the ties between the Lions and gives the cubs practice for hunting and actual fights that will follow once they reach adulthood. Play is really a process of education.
The reverberating roars and the ferocious fights among adult
males make Lions the true territorial masters. In their vicinity the
females are usually responsible for stalking the prey, raising the young,
teaching them the code of the wilderness and training them to become
hunters and warriors. In Gir, adult dominant males form groups of two to
five to defend their territory, and in few cases a solitary male defends
his home range. Adult Lions usually move in their territory and do not
stay with the pride all the time. Once a week or in 10 days they may pay a
visit, and stay for a day or two.
Larger prides depend on availability of prey and the home range. A home range is an area a group of Lions will protect and patrol to ensure availability of food and shelter for its members. A pride may have two to six females of varying age, including probably a well respected grandmother, one to three sub adults, and about two to three cubs, sometimes prides break up into smaller, separate units, which occasionally come together for short durations. In Devalia and some parts of western Gir, prides of more than 30 animals have been recorded. The greatest advantage of the pride is the security to the younger members and availability of food.
Some males roam across a large area of Gir, but older or dethroned males prefer the forest periphery or are driven outside the park to wander.
Size of the home range usually depends on number of males moving together and forming a joint territory. It also depends on the concentration of wild ungulates (Ungulate is any mammal whose toes end in hoofs. The name comes from the Latin word 'Ungula', meaning 'hoof') in their territory and to some extent on the vegetation type and terrain which offer shelter and camouflage.
The males demarcate the boundary of their home range by establishing 'scent posts'. They urinate over bushes, tufts of grass and selected landmarks. This informs other Lions to keep off. Their urine contains a strong smelling secretion that constitutes a scent barrier - unmistakable to other Lions. Reinforcing this unseen but effective chemical signal are other warning signs, both auditory and visual, which ward off would be intruders. The deafening roar and the majestic, luxuriant mane are the two most obvious examples of such supplementary warnings.
Unlike African Lions, Indian Lions hunt when they move
separately from the pride. This is so because the savannahs are huge in
size and allow the prey to escape easily. Hence it helps to hunt in a
group. But in Gir, the habitat is dense scrub forest interspersed with
trees and the number of prey species in a given area is not as numerous as
Thus the pride structure is smaller and it makes little sense to hunt in a group and not have enough food for all members of the hunting party. The Indian Lions stalk their prey at waterholes, catching them unawares. The Lioness' sleek, unencumbered body is better suited to her role as a huntress, lying in ambush, chasing and capturing her prey.
In Gir, the dominant males hunt in groups of two or three, while females and sub adults hunt separately. The female plays the role of a 'beater' by terrifying the prey with growls and driving them towards the spot where other Lionesses and sub adults are ready in wait. The Lionesses deliberately place themselves downwind, to avoid the prey's scent, while the Lions make wide detours until they are on the upwind side of the prey. When the prey catches the scent of the Lions it panics and runs headlong into the waiting jaws of the Lionesses.
The feeding behaviour of Lions in Gir is unique and is
different from African Lions. When two to three males are together, they
usually sHare the carcass, eating their sHare one after other. When one
male has finished his sHare, he will get up and go to the waiting Lion and
nudge him to go for his sHare. When a pride of females, sub adults and
cubs are on a kill, they all relish the meal together. At times, the cubs
find it difficult to get their sHare. This is when the senior most adult
Lioness allows cubs to eat their feed.
In the wilderness of Gir there is a highly effective division of labour between males and females. The Lionesses hunt, feed, raise their cubs and most importantly, train them to be huntresses or warriors whereas the Lions defend their territory and provide safety and security to the group. While the Lioness is the most efficient huntress, any pride deprived of its quota of protecting males is seriously weakened and is likely to disintegrate eventually.
Chitals abound in Gir and constitute more than 80 percent of the population of ungulates. They are the main food on the Lion's menu. Buffaloes and Cows come next, followed by Sambar and Nilgai. Smaller prey like wild boar is also consumed.
Occasionally, Lions have been known to turn to cannibalism by way of killing and eating young cubs. This is when a new Lion takes over the pride of females with young cubs borne by another male. When the cubs are killed, the females again become receptive and the new entrant thus gets a chance to spread his own genes.
Some Lions in Gir lead a nomadic life. They wander the length ad breadth of Gir, from Devalia to Tulsishyam, a distance of about 80-km. In the community of Lions it is common for male sub adults over the age of three to be expelled by the dominant males of the pride. Such males are condemned to wander like outlaws until they grow up in age and strength, and ultimately succeed in establishing their home range and their own pride. They may achieve this either by taking over the home range vacated by the death of another territorial male or by vanquishing the leader of another group. It has also been observed that an occasional female too has become a nomad by separating from regular companions, either due to shortage of food or territory.
The Gir forest had a much bigger area in the past. It is
estimated that around AD 1880, the area was about 3,070-sq-km. In 1955,
Indian government placed a total ban on killing of Lions. Around 1957 the
area was estimated to be around 2,560-sq-km and the Lion population was
estimated at 287. Since then, the forest area has drastically shrunk to
In 1965, the Gujarat government declared Gir forest as a sanctuary and in 1975, part of the sanctuary was declared as a National Park. With reduction of its territory, Lions have lost their crucial habitat and the corridors to Girnar, Mitiyala, Barda, Alech hills and other surrounding areas of Gir. But with effective protection on the other hand, Lion population has increased considerably from 177 in 1974 to around 300 in 1995. The 300 Lions are probably more than the carrying capacity of the park.
Lions being strong territorial animals, the excess Lion population, including nomadic Lions, are finding their territories outside Gir. Lions have been sighted, in recent years, as far away as Nagwa Beach in Diu, Sutrapada, Palitana, Mahuva, Savarkundla, Mitiyala, Keshod, Maliya Hatina, and Girnar. Some Lions have taken shelter in coastal plantations of Prosopis and Casuarina.
In the Girnar protected area, the Lion population rose from just one in 1974 to about 17 in 1995. There is a need to develop Gir's surrounding grasslands (known as 'Vidis') for wildlife. Decidedly the shortage of space in Gir Sanctuary is the main reason for the expanding territory and dispersal of Lions outside the park. There is a strong need to either have a second home for the Lions and preservation through a separate 'Gene Pool'.