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Is India's Pride Actually African?

时间:2013-07-24 13:45:09  来源:  作者:

BIOGEOGRAPHY
Is India's Pride Actually African?
Craig Packer
Exotic Aliens The Lion and the Cheetah in India by Valmik Thapar, Romila Thapar, and Yusuf Ansari Aleph, New Delhi, 2013. 304 pp. INR595, $54.75, £23.99. ISBN 9789382277552.
The reviewer is at the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA.
E-mail: packer@umn.edu
The Assyrians drew modern lions, Panthera leo, from firsthand experience in ancient Mesopotamia; lions were familiar to the Egyptian pharaohs; the Old Testament describes lions near Jerusalem; Alexander the Great killed a lion in Greece. But lion portraits also appeared in countries where they never lived. Maned lions adorn the medieval crests of England and northern Europe and the art of dynastic China. Just because a nation's cultural tradition celebrated the lion doesn't mean it was a native species.

Which brings us to the current distribution of Panthera leo, now restricted to the continent of Africa—with the curious exception of the lions of Gir Forest in the Indian state of Gujarat. For nearly two centuries, biologists have labeled Gir lions as “Asiatic lions” and designated them as a subspecies, P. l. persica. Genetic tests from the 1980s seemed to confirm this classification, because they found exceptionally low variation in blood enzymes—as expected from a long history of inbreeding in a small population. But the Gir lions show no obvious morphological distinctions from African lions. Whereas recent DNA tests reveal clear differences between the Gir lions and lions from eastern and southern Africa, they cannot be distinguished from North African lions.

In Exotic Aliens, wildlife conservationist Valmik Thapar argues that the Gir lions are directly descended from African lions. They were brought to India, he posits, as part of an international trade in wild animals that was well established by ancient times. As may be familiar to western readers, Romans imported lions from North Africa to the Coliseum to battle gladiators and to consume the occasional Christian. In contrast, Eastern rulers like Alexander the Great gained considerable glory from being the only men courageous enough to kill a lion. Thus, the Persians apparently imported lions for the glory of the shah, as did the Indians for their rajahs and emperors.

In the late 20th century, South African game ranchers gained notoriety for releasing captive lions in confined areas where “canned hunters” could always shoot their trophies. But there is nothing new under the sun. For centuries, shahs, rajahs, and emperors confronted their royal quarry in hunting parks or menageries: tigers, lions, cheetahs, and leopards were corralled and often drugged with opium so the great leaders (or their wives or children) could spear, stab, or shoot large, dangerous animals in comfort and safety.

Thapar suggests that African lions were imported over at least five centuries to restock the royal menageries, where they were eventually domesticated. Gujarat had long been a landing point on India's western coast and was thus a likely portal for importing exotic animals. The 19th-century rulers in Gujarat's Junagadh District were known to breed lions; Gir was their private hunting park. But the ancestors of these Gir lions may well have escaped from earlier menageries during periods of political upheaval.


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Painting by Shaikh Usman Tirandaz based on Mughal art.
CREDIT: SHAIKH USMAN TIRANDAZ/COURTESY ALEPH BOOK COMPANY, NEW DELHI
Today, Gir lions are so tame that tourists watch them on foot. Until the 1980s, tour guides led goats into the forest and tethered them to stakes. The lions patiently waited, not feasting until the guides moved away. Compared to wild African lions, this forbearance is inconceivable.

When I visited Gir in 1995, my Indian hosts drove around until we found a cattle-herder who pointed off to the side of the road, saying he'd just seen a mating lion pair. We left the car, and my hosts warned me not to walk too close. But I couldn't resist. I ducked beneath low branches, stepped over thick vines, and sat on the ground three meters from the pair. The female paid no mind, but the male reacted jealously. Then she rolled on her front and started the low growling that invites the male to mount.

It was an intense moment. On the one hand, I was transported by the sensation of her low grumble vibrating through my fundament. But I also felt stupid for being so close at the impending moment of climax—when she would roll on her back and swat him in the face, whereupon he might charge at a third party. If she rolled counterclockwise, her swat would shove him toward me. But I was lucky. She rolled clockwise and pushed him in the opposite direction. He merely snarled at me.

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