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Caged cubs in gender play

The lion cubs at Tata Steel Zoological Park in Jamshedpur. Pictures by Bhola Prasad

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Yes, stereotypes rule in the lion kingdom too.

The five pure-bred African lion cubs gifted to Jamshedpur’s Tata Steel Zoological Park by a Pretoria zoo reached the steel city from Calcutta around noon on Thursday and were promptly segregated — the two male cubs in separate cages and the three females together in one.

While all five appeared jetlagged after the two-day journey by air and road, you could tell the girls from the boys just by observing their traits, or so those who watched them closely said.

The male cubs apparently wasted no time in marking territory even in solitary confinement. As they pranced about, occasionally trying to climb a wall, the three females sat in a huddle soothing their tired sinews.

Did anyone hear the girls growl some lion gossip? Nobody dared answer this one lest the claws come out (of the gender-equality brigade, not the lions, silly)!

Tata Steel vice-president Sanjiv Paul, Tata Steel Zoological Society’s managing committee member Rajnish Kumar, zoo director Bipul Chakravarty and veterinarian Manik Palit burst into cheers at their first glimpse of the cubs, who came in 3.6 by 1.6ft cages resembling large computer cabinets.

“Ah! the lions are finally here,” gushed Chakravarty as vet Palit supervised the quarantine process. Enthusiastic zoo staffers gently unloaded the travel cages from the van and released the cubs into a four-cage enclosure.

The quintet will be quarantined under a vet’s observation for a month. Once certified fit for a regular life in the zoo, they will be allowed to move out of their cages and roam within the enclosure, which has a moat, grassy patches and trees.

The cubs’ first lunch in their new home comprised a course each of chicken and lamb. They hadn’t had meat for almost 30 hours till they reached Calcutta, their last bite of flesh being a kg of beef each before boarding a Singapore Airlines flight in Pretoria. At Singapore’s Changi airport, they had only water to drink.

Food was served to these special South African guests only at Calcutta airport, just before they commenced the journey to Jamshedpur by road around 1am on Thursday.

“A lion cub can stay without food for up to 48 hours. We spoke to the zoo authorities in Pretoria and decided not to feed the cubs during the travel period,” said Jamshedpur zoo director Chakravarty.

The cubs will continue to be on a diet recommended by their vets in Pretoria. “We have received a diet chart. The cubs will be fed beef and chicken on alternate days along with daily supplements of vitamin AD3E and calcium. They will fast once a week,” said vet Palit.

Just so that the cubs don’t forget their predator DNA, live rabbit and chicken will be their occasional kill for lunch and dinner.

Although they have been immunised, the cubs would need more vaccination and deworming after the quarantine period, their new vet said.

Zoo director Chakravarty said the quintets were the first pure-bred African lions to be relocated to India since Independence. Apart from being the stars of the zoo, they will be specimens for genetic studies on the species.

“Not much headway has been made in genetic studies on African and Asiatic lions. So their arrival is all the more significant,” Chakravarty said.

Travelling in special cages placed in the rear of the luggage hold of a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777, the lions had landed at Changi airport around 7am local time on Wednesday.

After 14 hours of rest without food, the quintet boarded the belly of an Airbus 330 to reach Calcutta at 10.35pm.

“On arrival, the five cages were put on a trolley pulled by a tractor and taken to the warehouse of the international cargo terminal. There they were handed over to the Jamshedpur zoo authorities,” said Louis Alphonso, head of sales and services (eastern India) with Singapore Airlines Cargo.

“It took us around 45 minutes to complete the formalities, including clearance by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and Customs. We had obtained permission in advance from Bengal’s chief wildlife warden to transport the lions to Jharkhand,” said Chakravarty.

Dipankar Biswas, quarantine officer from the central government, and Alipore zoo vet Arnab Majhi were at the airport to assist the Tata zoo’s assistant vet Sushen Mahto.

Before leaving for Jamshedpur, the cubs were given a kg of boneless chicken each to polish off. Nobody starves in food-loving Calcutta, not even diet chart-bound lion cubs in transit.