Posts Tagged 'Gir Forest'

Vanishing Species – The Asiatic Lion

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Asiatic Lion


Panthera leo persica


Pic: Courtesy, Yogendra Shah
Gir, the last bastion of an almost extinct species.
In 1901, the Nawab of Junagadh invited the then Viceroy Lord Curzon to Gir for a hunt. Lord Curzon backed off at the last moment when as if by providence a letter in a local newspaper criticised the damage a Viceroy’s visit would cause to a species on the verge of extinction. Wisely, he requested the Nawb to protect the last surviving animals in his territory. The total Lion population was around 20 when the Nawab enforced a ban on hunting. This move resulted as the first conservation effort for the continuous well being of the Lions. After India got its independence from the British rule in 1947, the government had come to realise the importance and fragile nature of this last bastion of the Asiatic lion, and the Nawab’s Lion conservation policy was upheld. The Indian government then created the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary collectively known as Gir Protected Area covering over 1,000 sq-kms.The sanctuary area is made up of dry scrubland with hills, rivers, and teak forest. In addition to the lion population, the wildlife includes Leopards, Antelopes, Deer, Jackals, Hyenas, and Marsh Crocodiles Naturalists were assigned to study and take a census of the Gir’s lion population, which at that time was around 200 lions.
Gir Widllife Sanctaury is the last refuge of Asiatic lions in India and the lion population residing in the park is about 350. The protected area of Gir Sanctuary is about 560-square-mile (1,450-sq-kms). In India too, the Lions were spread across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. History bears witness to the fact that this majestic animal is so deeply etched in our minds that King Ashoka depicted them on his rock pillars around 300 BC. Today India’s National Emblem is based on the Lions featured on Ashoka’s pillars.

The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in India hence it is also known as the Indian lion. They ranged once from the Mediterranean to India, covering most of Southwest Asia where it is also known as the Persian lion.The current wild population consists of about 350 individuals restricted to the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat, India.The historic distribution included the Caucasus to Yemen and from Macedonia in Greece to present-day India through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan through to the borders of Bangladesh.

Lions have gradually disappeared from many regions of the world as a result of habitat destruction and reckless hunting, as well as exploitation for the purpose of public amusement; in the days of the Roman Empire for instance, lions would be imported to entertain the masses by doing battle with either human gladiators or other animals. Eventually they became extinct throughout much of their former ranges. But unlike many of the populations of African lions that continue to thrive today, the formerly vast population of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) has now been confined to the Gir Forests. The Asiatic lion is exceptionally rare, and is in extreme danger of extinction. Our Asiatic lions are part of the breeding project of the European Endangered Species Program (EEP).

Asiatic Lions in Europe and Southwest Asia

Lions were once found in Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans. When King Xerxes of Persia advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. Lions are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greece around AD 80-100.The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but others consider it a separate subspecies, the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).Lions were found in the Caucasus until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Union’s territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armenia around the year 100 and in Azerbaijan and southwest Russia during the 10th century. The region was also inhabited by the Caspian Tiger and the Persian leopard apart from Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) introduced by Armenian princes for hunting. The last tiger was shot in 1932 near Prishib village in Talis, Azerba?an Republic. The principal reasons for the disappearance of these cats was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the wisent, elk, aurochs, tarpan, deer and other ungulates.

Lions remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-19th century when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. The last sighting of a live Asiatic Lion in Iran was in 1941 (between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars province). In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river, Khuzestan province, Iran. There are no subsequent reliable reports from Iran. By the late 19th century the lion had disappeared from Turkey.

Physical Traits

Asiatic Lion is the second largest ‘Big Cat’ in the world, after the ferocious tiger. A fully-grown male tiger reaches a length of 1.7 m to 2.5 m (head and body), with its tail being somewhere around 70 to 105 cm long. The tail of an Indian Lion has a dark tuft of fur at the end. Its shoulder height is around 1 to 1.23 m and the animal weighs between 150 kg and 250 kg. A lioness is smaller in size as compared to the male and reaches a height of 80 to 107 cm. The length of the head and the body is 1.7 to 2.5 m, while the weight is 120 to 180 kg.
The males are orange-yellow to dark brown in color, while the females have a sandy or tawny color. Males also have a mane, which is usually dark in color, but is rarely seen to be of black color. This characteristic mane is absent in the females. The mane of an Asiatic Lion is also shorter than that of an African Lion. However, Indian Lions are much more bushy, with longer tufts of hair at the end of the tail as well as on the elbow joints, than their African cousins.


Indian Lions are the only Big Cats that are seen living in large groups, known as ‘prides’. A typical pride comprises of around 15 members, which includes related lionesses, their cubs and a few males. The number of males in a pride is usually around three and one of them dominates the rest of the group, including the other males. In a pride, it is the lionesses that do all the work, right from taking care of the cubs to hunting. The males only make the first claim on the game hunted by the female.
The lionesses as well as the cubs eat only the leftovers. Male lions establish their pride’s territorial boundaries by roaring and scent marking and fiercely defend it. All the members of the pride are closely attached with one another. In fact, majority of the lionesses remain with a particular pride throughout their life. However, a male is expelled from the pride the moment it is 3 years old. The few male lions that do not join any group become a major threat to the ones with a pride. Asiatic lions usually hunt in groups and are rarely seen stalking a prey in isolation.

Mating Behavior

Male lions attain the age of maturity around 5 years of age, while the lionesses become mature after becoming 4 years old. There is no particular mating season of the Indian Lions. They can mate anytime during the entire year. The gestation period lasts for 100 to 119 days, after which 3 to 4 cubs are born.


Indian Lions are carnivorous and depend upon hunting for food. Their prey mainly comprises of Deer, Antelope, Wild Boar and Wild Buffalo. At times, lions have also been observed attacking young hippopotamus and elephants.
Geographical RangeAsiatic Lions are highly endangered species and have become extinct from all the countries of the world, except the Indian subcontinent. In India also, the animal is found only in the Gir forests of Gujarat.

Current Status

The last census on the Asiatic Lions was carried out in the year 2006. It revealed the population of the species to be somewhere around 359, including over 50 lions kept in captivity.


Asiatic lions form prides (groups), in which all the work, including hunting, is done by the lionesses. The only work that males do is to make the first claim on the prey hunted by the females. Apart from that, they just laze around and do nothing.


The Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project is an effort to save the last Asiatic lions from extinction in the wild. The last wild population in the Gir Forest region of the Indian state of Gujarat is under threat from epidemics, Natural disasters and Man-made disasters. The goal is to establish a second independent population of Asiatic Lions at the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It is important to start a second population to bolster the population of Asiatic Lions, and to help develop and maintain genetic diversity enabling the subspecies to survive.Wildlife Institute of India researchers confirmed that the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is the most promising location to re-establish a free ranging population of the Asiatic lions and certified it ready to receive it’s first batch of translocated lions from Gir Wildlife Sanctuary where they are highly overpopulated. There are large scale deaths in the population annually because of ever increasing competition between the human and animal overcrowding. Asiatic lion prides require large territories but there is limited space at Gir wildlife sanctuary, which is boxed in on all sides by heavy human habitation.Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was selected as the reintroduction site for critically endangered Asiatic lion because it is in the former range of the lions before it was hunted into extinction in about 1873. It was selected following stringent international criteria and internationally accepted requirements & guidelines developed by IUCN/SSC Reintroduction Specialist Group and IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group[5] which are followed before any reintroduction attempt anywhere in the world.Twenty four villages of the Sahariya tribe, which had lived in the remote core area set aside for the reintroduction of the Asiatic lions in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, agreed to move out.] They were rehabilitated by incurring an expense equal to millions of dollars under a Central Government of India sponsored scheme so that they can have access to basic amenities and infrastructure like roads, schools, hospitals, communal housing and security.They were also allocated housing and agricultural land at Village Agraa outside the sanctuary in order to create a safe home and an inviolate space for the translocated prides of critically endangered Indian lions.


The wild population of more than 300 Asiatic Lions has been said to be derived from just 13 individuals, and thus was widely thought to be highly inbred. However, this low figure, quoted from 1910, may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting; census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100.Many studies have reported that the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases and their sperms were deformed leading to infertility. In earlier studies Stephen O’Brien, a geneticist, had suggested that “If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually look like identical twins… because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that was all left at the turn of the 20th century.” This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases, and causes 70 to 80% of sperms to be deformed – a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.Indian scientists have since reported that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of the inbreeding. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of lions.[15]Recent information from the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA) reports that “the Asiatic lions and Indian tigers are not as inbred as previously reported by S.J. O’ Brien and do not suffer from inbreeding depression”.

Threats to the last wild population

Although the Gir Forest is considered to be well-protected, there have been incidences of lions being poached, and claws regularly are found missing from their carcasses. Lions have also been poisoned for attacking livestock. Some of the other major threats include floods, fires and disease. In addition, with the lion population of the Gir Forest having reached about 350, the local population is increasingly strained by its relatively small environment, which is surrounded on all sides with areas inhabited by humans. Severe local overcrowding in Gir wildlife sanctuary has been causing very high annual death rate in the last critically endangered Asiatic lions leading to accelerated Genetic erosion in their already limited relict gene pool left surviving here. Asiatic lions’s natural habitat of grasslands, scrub and thin forests closely resembles surrounding farmlands and orchards where being highly territorial excess lions are being pushed out on a regular basis hence several have migrated out of Gir into unprotected farmland and orchards, where they have come into severe conflict with humans.Over the decades hundreds of lions have died, drowned or broken bones by falling into the 20,000 open wells dug by farmers in and immediately around Gir Forest within an 8km radius. Open wells are now a documented threat to the Asiatic Lion population, though they remain legal. Non-governmental organisations seek to work with the farmers and educate them to construct drilled tube wells instead, which pose no threat to wildlife.Farmers on the periphery of the Gir National Park have been known to illegally use homemade electrical fences to protect their crops from raiding wild animals, specially from herds of Nilgai and connect high voltage overhead power lines directly to these fences. This has on several occasions led to the electrocution of lions and other wildlife.

The biggest threat faced by the Gir National Park is the presence of Maldharis. These communities are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching because they are basically pasturalists, with an average of 50 cattle (mainly “Gir Cow”) per family. So during grass-scarce seasons Maldharis, even from outside the sanctuary, bring their cattle into the park in the guise of selling them and take them away after the monsoon season. So eventually it has become grazing ground for a large number of cattle, not only of the Maldharis but also for those living in an area of say 100 km around the park. These people are legally entitled to live in the park but slowly the area around the nesses (small hamlets where Maldharis live) is becoming denuded of vegetation. The population of Maldharis, as well as their numbers of cattle, is increasing and some Maldharis have houses outside the forest but still keep their cattle inside the forest to get unlimited access to forage. One of the outcomes of this is that the natural population of the wild ungulates of the protected area, which forms the prey base, has suffered.

The famous original sandstone sculpted Lion Capital of Ashoka preserved at Sarnath Museum which was originally erected around 250 BCE atop an Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. The angle from which this picture has been taken, minus the inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, has been adopted as the National Emblem of India showing the Horse on the left and the Bull on the right of the Ashoka Chakra in the circular base on which the four Indian / Asiatic lions are standing back to back. On the far side there is an Elephant and a Lion instead. The wheel “Ashoka Chakra” from its base has been placed onto the center of the National Flag of India. Found famously on numerous Flags and Coat of Arms all across Asia and Europe, the Asiatic Lions also stand firm on the National Emblem of India. Narasimha (“man-lion”) (also spelt as Narasingh, Narasinga) is described as an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism and is worshiped as “Lion God” thus Indian or Asiatic Lions which were commonly found throughout most of India in ancient times are considered sacred by all Hindus in India. Singh is an ancient Indian Vedic name meaning “Lion” (Asiatic Lion), dating back over 2000 years to ancient India. It was originally only used by Rajputs a Hindu Kshatriya or military caste in India since the 7th Century. After the birth of the Khalsa brotherhood in 1699, the Sikhs also adopted the name “Singh” due to the wishes of Guru Gobind Singh. Along with millions of Hindu Rajputs today, it is also used by up to 10 million Sikhs worldwideThe island nation of Singapore (Singapura) derives its name from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city), which in turn is from the Sanskrit siṃha and pura. According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatran Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, on alighting the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on shore that his chief minister identified as a lion (Asiatic Lion). Recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger. The Asiatic lion makes repeated appearances in the Bible, most notably as having fought Samson in the Book of Judges. The Asiatic lion is the basis of the lion dances that form part of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, and of similar customs in other Asian countries.


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