The core argument of the book is given away on the cover itself
In the sixteenth century, Dutch traveler Jan Linschoten noted the absence of lions throughout the Indian subcontinent. Two hundred years later, echoing similar comments made by various hunters and observers of Indian wildlife, the British shikari, and writer, Captain Thomas Williamson, emphatically declared: There are no lions in Hindustan. Much the same was said about the cheetah in the region.
Romila Thapar’s argument: Lions have been strongly associated with kingship and lions motifs are spread across the world despite those regions (United kingdom, Sri Lanka) having no indigenous lions. Starting with civilizations of the middle east and how these cultures associated kingship, divinity, and morality with lions, Romila Thapar concludes that no imagery of Indus Valley civilization has lions. The contrast between the Western Bronze cultural emphasis on Lions and the total absence of lions in Indus valley seals (unlike Tigers who are ubiquitous) is profound. (Essentially the same argument is made for the HORSE in Indus valley). Thapar then goes on to speculate that the first interactions, the lands of the Indus had with Lions were after Alexander’s conquest and later Indo Greek rulers. She also points to the Rigveda (which she claims at least was partially composed beyond the Indus in the west) mentions lions and not tigers thought the later Vedas (esp Atharvaveda) mention Tigers more than Lions. Another point she makes, is tigers interactions are much more common in Indian literature (from Mahabharata onwards) while lions are often invoked as symbols.
The most fascinating argument she makes is that farther the land where Lions motifs are present is Lion’s native range (Africa to Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan in her opinion) the more UnLionish these motifs became. Eg: British and Sri Lankan lions who are almost serpentine.
Yusuf Ansari’s arguments: Yusuf Ansari, a historian of the Mughal era painstakingly goes through the references to the Lions and Cheetahs during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal period. He points out some discrepancies in accounts of hunting lions in the wilds by the rulers. Mughals considered a Lion hunt an auspicious omen while failure in a lion-hunt a bad omen. His core point is that whatever lions were hunted must be hunted in managed hunting grounds of the Mughals. He also points out that especially during the Mughal times, Indians were importing Lions and Cheetahs in large amounts for imperial gratification. About the Cheetahs, Ansari tells interesting tales about the role of cheetahs in Mughal hunts (as hunting leopards) and delves deep into Jahangir’s fascination with animals.
Valmik Thapar’s arguments: Valmik Thapar, a renowned tiger conservationist whose pet peeve became this book takes the argument further. Valmik speculates than all the lions and cheetahs hunted in from the Mughal to British times were the descendants of imported lions who got away earlier. The most convincing part of his argument is when he delves into the British hunting numbers. Often the number of Lions and Cheetahs hunted by the Brits (who kept the most reliable records) are often less than the number of Tigers and leopards killed by over a factor of 100. The result of indiscriminate hunting was that by the turn of the 20th century India just had a handful of Lions and Cheetahs remaining in wild. The Lions managed to survive thanks to the Nawab of Junagadh, the Cheetahs had no saviors and became extinct in by the 50s. Incidentally, the Nawab of Junagadh story can bolster the argument of the book, as Gir forest today were once the Nawab’s private hunting grounds (where he could’ve easily relocated imported lions ). Additionally, Thapar points out that it could be feasible that the phenotypical differences between Asiatic lions and African lions could be due to inbreeding and not selection. Additionally, Thapar claims that the particularly docile nature of Gir lions – in contrast in Tigers and African lions is also a red herring.
The book is very well written and fascinating (especially if you are interested in history as well as wildlife). Exotic Aliens is an attempt to convince the readers that Lions and Cheetahs are not indigenous to the Indian subcontinent but were imported for the leisure of kings – especially during the Mughal times. The book contains a lot of hard work especially by Valmik Thapar and Ansari but doesn’t necessarily convince the reader in the end. The argument is strong but still can’t be completely convincing about the Exotic nature of these animals. Had the authors made the point that Lions were never present in India in large numbers (maybe due to competition from Tigers, lack of savannas habitats) and Cheetahs weren’t spread across the country as their habitats were small and fragmented, it would’ve worked. Personally I find it easier to buy that Cheetahs were imported aliens than Lions, but maybe both cases are valid for I can’t deny these arguments as outlandish conspiracy theories though I am not totally convinced by them. I would still rate the book 3/5 as its enjoyable read and will certainly add to the knowledge of the reader.
It doesn’t help the book that it’s the timing of the release was 2013 – when Narendra Modi was on the ascendency with his Gujarat Model. For those interested, a crucial part of his campaign and image of Gujarat is the Gir sanctuary which provides refuge to the last Asiatic Lions of the world. The conservation campaign for Lions was vastly more successful in 2013 than Tigers in India and it was invoked by Modi to the conservationists who looked at him doubtfully. There have been some politics on the ground with the relocation of the Gujarat lions to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh which is yet to materialize. The allegation that this book is an attack at the prestige of lions and by extension, the prestige of Gujarat (and Modi) by the Thapars is not as implausible as it sounds at first glance. Yet I decided to buy and read this book with an open mind as I am fascinated by wildlife back in 2013 itself. To add to this a similar Cheetah reintroduction project is also underway and this project particularly has divided opinions.
A paper The evolutionary history of extinct and living lions was published in May 2020. It adds
First, consistent with previous publications (34, 46), we found no evidence to support the recent claim that the remaining population is not indigenous to the region, but instead were introduced from outside of India (47) as our Indian lions are clearly genetically distinct to the other sampled populations
The argument of the book can still work if one assumes that the source population for Gir Lions is an unknown Ghost which is un-mapped & probably from North Africa / West Asia historically. But that appears to be fitting the data to suite the argument IMO.
I have not visited the Gir forest yet though I have visited a lot of Tiger parks in India. I have also visited Maasai Mara in Kenya where I saw Lions and Cheetahs in the wild. I could write and share more about my wildlife and travel experiences if there is enough interest in the Brown pundits blog. Politics and history are not my first love.