Wild Vault

Three Lions Take on a Lonely Turtle. Will it Survive?

Every visit to Gir Wildlife Sanctuary throws up surprises. This time it was a chance sighting of three subadult Asiatic Lions, trying to feast on a seemingly helpless but extremely hardy India Flapshell Turtle

Text and photos by: Dr. Mohan Ram

It was a regular summer morning, and I was on a usual round through the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. When I reached near the Kamleshwar Dam area, Mr. Mohammad J. Bloch, a senior and experienced tracker, informed me that three sub-adult lions were on the prowl towards the bank of the reservoir. We promptly changed our plans and drove towards the possible location with an eagerness to see what the forest had to unveil.  

The Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary are a few of the most enigmatic landscapes of India. The Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, 1410.30 sq. km of Protected Area,  is a mosaic of green patches, dry deciduous forests and savannah grasslands. Seven seasonal rivers that fill the four large reservoirs run through this pristine landscape. The Kamleshwar Dam,  the smallest reservoir in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, is one of the important water sources for wildlife. The forest is home to 635 species of flora that comprise 144 tree species, 72 shrub species, 279 herb species, 92 climbers and 48 grass species. It also supports a diverse assemblage of wild fauna with about 41 species of mammals, 47 species of reptiles, over 338 species of resident and migratory birds and more than 2000 species of insects, including 39 butterflies’ species. However, the area is more famous for its largest and only wild population of Asiatic Lions in the world. Being Deputy Conservator of Forests at the Wildlife Division Sasan-Gir, I have been lucky to explore this region through regular field visits and surveys. However, though I have been patrolling this forest almost every day, it still unveils new or exciting natural history moments on every visit. None of the two days is identical in Nature; every day, we learn something new.  

Gir forest is home to seven rivers that fill the four reservoirs. The Kamleshwar Dam that lies on the Hiran River is the smallest within the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and supports a wide variety of wildlife.   Cover photo: The Asiatic Lion was once widely distributed in Asia, covering Mesopotamia, Arabia, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent, where it was fairly abundant up to the end of the 18th century. Indiscriminate hunting, habitat loss, etc., wiped out lions from the rest of India. Presently (June 2020), 674 individuals are distributed in nine districts of the Gujarat State, covering a sprawling expanse of ~30,000 sq. km.

Gir forest is home to seven rivers that fill the four reservoirs. The Kamleshwar Dam that lies on the Hiran River is the smallest within the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and supports a wide variety of wildlife.
Cover photo: The Asiatic Lion was once widely distributed in Asia, covering Mesopotamia, Arabia, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent, where it was fairly abundant up to the end of the 18th century. Indiscriminate hunting, habitat loss, etc., wiped out lions from the rest of India. Presently (June 2020), 674 individuals are distributed in nine districts of the Gujarat State, covering a sprawling expanse of ~30,000 sq. km.

 When we reached the bank of Kamleshwar Dam, I first noticed an Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). Surprisingly, it was sitting on one of the rocks of the earthen bund of the reservoir and was found to be observing something. Soon, it took a straight flight to the honeycomb located in the stone pitched earthen bund of the reservoir. As the beehive was a bit deeper, it had to stick its beak in the gap of pitched stones to extract it while balancing the rest of its body. The struggle continued for a while, and the disturbed bees were trying hard to keep this predator away. Still, the buzzard was not bothered by their presence as it has a specific adaptation in its feathers to protect it from the bee sting.  

Lions are the only wild cats that live in groups called prides. Males leave their natal family units as they age to lead their own. Sub-adult males, like the ones seen above, may band together until they can take over another pride.

Lions are the only wild cats that live in groups called prides. Males leave their natal family units as they age to lead their own. Sub-adult males, like the ones seen above, may band together until they can take over another pride.

This was the first time I had seen an Oriental Honeybuzzard feeding on the larvae, eggs and honey of the beehive, but little did I know, until informed by the tracker, that a greater surprise was just around the corner. We saw three subadult lions near an earthen bund of the Kamleshwar Dam a few minutes later. They must have been about three-four years old. We followed them from a distance through a dry-rugged trail by our vehicle.

Suddenly, one of the lions ran towards the water and caught an Indian Flapshell Turtle (Lissemys punctata), a freshwater turtle found in rivers and other freshwater waterbodies in South Asia. Its name, “flapshell”, stands for the flaps located on its shell. When they are retracted into the shell, these flaps of skin cover the limbs. The head and limbs can also be retracted entirely in the shell when in dangerWhen the lion got hold of the turtle, it immediately retracted its head and legs inside its protective shell in defence. The other two subadult lions stood watching this unusual act. The lion with the turtle, hanging upside down in its mouth, moved to a distance. It sat there and started licking the turtle. After a while, it tried to open it with its teeth but was unsuccessful. It played with it for around seven to eight minutes and then picked it up in its mouth and started walking againWhile hanging from the lion’s mouth, the turtle nervously stuck its head out for a moment to look for an escape but retracted back within a few seconds 

Asiatic lions are carnivores that primarily feed on spotted deer, wild boar, sambar, nilgai and other large prey. However, lions are opportunistic feeders and may feed on reptiles like turtles, lizards, and crocodiles. Seen above, subadult lions (top left) chance upon an Indian Flapshell Turtle and try to lick, bite and crack it open. The turtle has retracted its head and limbs into its protective shell in defence.

The lion carried it for about 12-15 meters before dropping it at a suitable spot for the second attempt to lick and crack it open. Maybe the lion soon realised that this was a futile attempt, and therefore, dropped the turtle and moved away. The other lions were watching this situation from a distance, and one of them found an opportunity to try his luck and skill on the turtle, so he rushed towards the turtle and tried to open it with a different technique. It held the turtle firmly between his front legs, sat on the ground and tried to yank it open with its teeth. Then he turned the turtle upside down, started licking it for a while, and suddenly tossed it between his feet. Later, he stood up and stepped on the turtle, perhaps in an attempt to crush it. Maybe he was disappointed in realising that he failed in front of this tiny and sturdy animal, so he also walked away.  

Now, the third subadult lion walked towards the turtle and pounced on it, grabbing it with its forelimbs. He sat by its side and attempted to open the turtle’s shell thrice but failed. He also tried licking the ventral side of the turtle intermittently for around three to four minutes. In one last, desperate attempt, it stood on the turtle with all four legs on its shell. The lion was balancing entirely on the turtle’s shell for a fraction of a second! Eventually, exhausted and bored, he also went away, leaving behind this small and (not so) softshell turtle. The turtle lay down on the ground like a rock for a while. Suddenly, a Jungle Crow showed up, and he also tried to open the turtle with its hard beak but failed. Eventually, it flew away too. The turtle was finally alone.  

 

The lions tried different tricks and tactics to relish on the flesh of the Indian Flapshell Turtle. (Top) After several attempts, the lions gave up and walked away. (Above) Once the lions left, the turtle cautiously emerged from the shell and crawled toward the water.

The lions tried different tricks and tactics to relish on the flesh of the Indian Flapshell Turtle. (Top) After several attempts, the lions gave up and walked away. (Above) Once the lions left, the turtle cautiously emerged from the shell and crawled toward the water.

After around seven to ten minutes, it cautiously stuck out its head, followed by the legs from the shell, observed the surroundings and started moving towards the water slowly. We were enthralled and curious to see whether the lions would notice this movement and catch the turtle again before it could run away? To our surprise, the turtle slowly and steadily kept moving towards the water and eventually slipped inside the water. One of the lions noticed this sudden disappearance and walked towards the water but could not find the turtle. It waited for a while and then joined the other two lions for the prowl. The slow and seemingly defenceless turtle lived to see another day.    

 

 

Dr Mohan Ram
Dr Mohan Ram

is an Indian Forest Service Officer who is passionate about forest and wildlife conservation. His profession takes him to different landscapes where he gets the opportunity to serve Mother Nature.


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