The lion commonly referred to as “the king of the jungle,” is one of the most popular animals in the wild and a member of the “Big Five Game.” It is a widely recognized animal symbol in most cultures and has been extensively depicted in paintings and sculptures, national flags, and literature. Lions are social species belonging to the family Felidae or cats. They mainly inhabit savanna and grasslands and are rarely found in forests. There are two subspecies of lions; Panthera leo leo consisting of Central African, West African, Barbary, and Asiatic lions and Panthera leo melanochaita consisting of Southern African lions. This article focuses on the Asiatic lion and its characteristics, habitat, classification, and related information.
Asiatic Lion’s Near Extinction
A large population of the lion was found in the vast African savannah alongside herds of antelopes and zebras which serve as their food. Apart from Africa, lions were common in Eurasia. However, systematic hunting, especially by the British colonials brought the species in Eurasia to near extinction. The subsequent conservation efforts ensured that the Asiatic lion survived. Despite their restricted distribution, the story of the species remains one of the rare conservation successes. The Asiatic lion is restricted to Gir National Park and its environs in Gujarat and it is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List because of its small population which is about 650 individuals (as of 2017). It is sometimes referred to as “Persian lion” or “Indian lion.” The Asiatic lion is one of the five pantherine cats in India.
Classification and Evolution
The Asiatic lion is a subspecies of lions that split from the African lions about 100,000 years ago and prowled across Asia and the Middle East. The subspecies was first described in 1826 by Johanna N Meyer (Austrian) and named it Felis leo persicus. Phylogeographic analysis of lions indicates that all the modern lions including the Asiatic lion may have originated from Sub-Saharan African lion. Lions migrated from East and Southern Africa to eastern North Africa, West Africa, and into Turkey, northern India, and Southern Europe via the Arabian Peninsula. The Asiatic lion is closely related to West and North African lions than the Southern and Eastern Lions. It is believed that the Indian lion maintained its connection with the Central and North African lions until the lions in the Middle East and Europe became extinct following the interruption of the gene flow. Because of the close molecular genetics and morphological similarities with the now extinct Barbary lion, the Asiatic lion has been subsumed to Panthera leo leo.
Physical Appearance and Characteristics
The Asiatic lion is smaller than the African lion. The male is slightly bigger than the female lion, with the male weighing approximately 160-190 kg while the female weighs 110-120 kg. The shoulder height for the male Asiatic lion is 3.51-3.94 feet and the female is 2.6-3.5 feet. The maximum recorded length of a male lion in Gir National Park is 115 inches (from head to tail). The fur of the Asiatic lion ranges ruddy-tawny to sandy or buffish gray. Like the African lions, the males also have mane at the top of their heads but the growth is shorter, making it possible to see the ears. The mane on the throat and cheeks are scanty. The skull of adult males is about 13 inches and of the female is 11.5-11.9 inches. The Asiatic lion’s tail tuft is larger than the African lion. The outstanding feature common in the species but absent in their African counterparts is the fold of skin on the belly.
Distribution and Habitat
Approximately 545 square miles in Saurashtra’s Gir forest has been set aside as a conservation sanctuary for the Asiatic lions. The sanctuary and its environments are the only places where the Asiatic lions can be found. However, the lions occurred in eastern Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Mesopotamia, Bengal, and Iran in the 19th century. Since the turn of the 20th century, the lions are restricted to the Gir Forest National Park and the surrounding environs. The national park is approximately 100 square miles and was established in 1965. Human activities are not allowed in the national park and the surrounding area.
The Asiatic lions inhabit the Girnar and Gir hill systems comprising large land of thorny forest, savannah, and tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forest. The lions are protected in five protected areas; Gir National Park, Gir Sanctuary, Pania Sanctuary, Girnar Sanctuary, and Mitiyala Sanctuary. The national park, Gir, and Pania sanctuaries are the core habitats for the lions and form the Gir Conservation Area. There are plans to establish an additional sanctuary near the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary. In 2019, a lioness and a sub-adult were sighted in villages about 31 miles from Chotila (Surendranagar District), making the district the 5th in Gujarat to host the lions. The villages are about 43 miles from Ger Forest.
Although lions are social species, the male Asiatic lions are generally solitary and may form a loose pride of up to three males. The females are more social and often have a strong pride of up to 12 females and their cubs. The pride of female lions will always share carcasses among themselves. Males and females only associate for a short time during the mating season. The males have a large home range (56-89 square miles) compared to the female (26-33 square miles).
Asiatic lions prefer larger prey with weight ranging from 420 to 1,210 pounds. Domestic cattle have been the main source of food for the lion in Gir Forest. Inside the national park, they mainly prey on sambar, buffalo, chital, nilgai, and cattle. Buffalos and cattle are mainly hunted outside the protected areas where there is no wild prey. The dominant male lion consumes almost half of the kill while the rest is shared by the coalition partners.
The mating season for the Asiatic lions falls between September and January. The mating period is between 3 to six days, during which the lions do not hunt and only survive on water. The lion’s gestation period is 110 days after which 1-4 cubs are born. The female lions take care of cubs for an average of 24 months before they give birth to another set. However, the interval between births can be shorter if the cubs die.
Counting the Lions
Asiatic lion is the lone representative of P. l. leo species outside of Africa. It was almost driven to extinction by human actions in the 19th century. Thanks to human efforts, the lions have been brought back to the brink. The lions are counted every five years, with the census involving people from the surrounding villages. About 300 rangers recruited from the surrounding area track, count, and record each lion. In 2015, 523 individual lions were counted including 201 adult females, 109 adult males, and 203 cubs.
Conservation Issues and Threats
The Asiatic lions, like other wild animals in India, face the usual threat of poaching and habitat loss. Although the government has banned poaching of lions throughout the country, there have been reports of poaching in recent years involving organized gangs who prefer lions to tigers. Although wells have been dug within the protected areas to provide water for the wildlife, some lions have reportedly drowned in the wells.
Three major roads and a railway track pass through the protected area. Although these have been fenced off, the continued use has caused disturbance to the lions. The three big temples inside the protected area attract a large number of pilgrims, especially during certain times of the year.
Since the 1990s, the population of Asiatic lions has increased significantly. About 200 of these lions reside outside the protected area, leading to an increase in conflict between them and humans. Although the lions have helped to keep away animals such as wild pigs and nilgais ways, the locals have attacked and killed some lions for preying on their livestock. There have also been cases of lions attacking and killing humans. However, with the changing lifestyle and values, the lion-human conflict has greatly reduced.
The existence of the Asiatic lions as a single sub-populations makes them vulnerable to extinction in case of an event such as wildfire or epidemic. They also exposed to the threat of genetic inbreeding because of their existence in one place.
Conservation Efforts and Initiatives
The Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project is one of the most successful conservation stories in India. The project was an initiative of the government of India to safeguard the Asiatic lions from extinction. It involved the relocation of people living around Gir to create room for the lions. So far, over 500 square miles has been declared a protected area and a habitat for the Asiatic lions. To increase conservation awareness, the seal of the state of Gujarat depicts three Asiatic lions above its name. WWF-India is working with local partners such as the Gujarat Forest Department to barricade the wells. It is also working to undertake studies to assess the habitat change to address issues of poaching and manage conflict. There is also a dedicated team of game rangers who take the injured lions to the treatment center located in the park. The effort has seen several injured lions rescued and treated on time.