Gujarat in Western India is home to the only surviving population of lions in Asia
A pride of tawny large cats lounging in the savannah, teething cubs tumbling and biting each other playfully; this is the image most of us conjure in our heads at the mention of lions. However, there was a time when these magnificent beasts weren’t just confined to Africa but roamed and thrived right across the world.
In fact, right up until the Pleistocene era 10,000 years ago, a subspecies of these majestic cats called cave lions were extensively found in Europe including Britain, Germany and Spain. Historic works, including writings by Greek authors and philosophers such as Aristotle mention lions found in the Balkans and Macedonia. These lions held a particularly important place as a cultural totem depicted in art, craft and currency in Europe and western Asia. Lion hunting scenes, with the animal in confrontation with hunters, were also common and popular depiction.
Today, however, these lions are but a shadow of their prolific past. In Africa, they have dwindled from a population of around 1.2 million in the 1800s to less than 30,000 today. Outside Africa they have been senselessly hunted to extinction—all except for one small, sparse population. The dry deciduous teak forests of the Gir National Park and its surrounding areas in Western India is the only remaining home of lions in Asia. Around 5000 years ago lion prides drifted out of Africa and into the Middle East and parts of the Asia reaching as far as India to eventually become a new subspecies, the Asiatic lions or Panthera leo persica, now an endangered species.
These big cats were not always confined to a single population in Asia as they are today—even in the early decades of the twentieth century Asiatic lions were found in other parts of the continent. Since the 18th century there are records of these lions shot or sighted in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and across northern and central India. They were often commonly spotted along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iran also has a long history of association with these felines. They were known to be found a plenty in the oak forests of the Zagros mountains and reed beds of Azan plains in Persia where they preyed on wild boars.
But the large carnivore became the most tragic victim of trophy hunting in Asia. While lion hunting was extensive across the Middle East, the arrival of firearms meant reckless and quicker carnages. Trophy hunting a lion, the king of the forest, carried with it an incomparable thrill and tremendous prestige. Lions are unique among cats being the only felines to display social behaviour. Being in groups also made them that much more easily visible than solitary big cats like tigers and leopards. By the turn of the century, these lions were hunted to their extinction in most of the Asia. The last lion in Tunisia was killed in 1891, Turkey saw its last Asiatic lion in 1870. In 1942, the last sighting of Asiatic lions outside India was reported, a pair in Southwest Iran.
The lions that made their way into India from the Middle-East were ironically wiped out from where they came. As elsewhere, they were being hunted in India, their numbers shrinking swiftly. In two years, between 1856-58, 50 lions were killed in the Delhi district. The British as well as the Maharajas took great pleasure in ‘shikar’ or trophy hunting which exterminated the lions found in North, central and Eastern India. Only a small population endured in the Gir forests of Gujarat. A mere 20 lions were estimated to survive in 1913.
Their dismal numbers made them so treasurable that the local ruler (and an ardent hunter himself), the Nawab of Junagarh, decided to restrict lion killings. It is the efforts of the Nawabs that safeguarded the only wild population of the Asiatic lions. Vast portions of the Gir forest were safeguarded. Hunting was banned post India’s independence and in 1965 an area of 1265km was declared the Gir Forest Wildlife Sanctuary protecting the lion’s habitat.
Asiatic vs African lions
Although the Asiatic and African lions branched out 100,000 years ago, there are only a few physical differences that the two display. In contrast to the dense mane of the African lions, the male Asiatic lion’s mane is modest but darker in colour. They also tend to be slightly smaller than their African cousins. A distinct physical attribute is an abdominal skin fold that is unique to Asiatic lions. They also have a thicker coat and a longer tail tuft.
The only sociable cats, both the sub-species live in ‘prides’. While the African prides tend to have four or five females, one to four males and cubs, the Asiatic prides are smaller with two females and cubs. The males of the Asiatic lions don’t play a key role in the prides, they tend to live away from the pride or in coalition of other males interacting with a lioness only during mating or kills.
Asiatic lions today
Asiatic lions live in a human-dominated landscape and share their homes much more closely with people than their African cousins do. Ravi Chellam, India’s foremost lion expert began studying the Asiatic lions almost three decades ago in 1985. He explains: ‘These lions interact much more closely with people. They are very tolerant of people for a variety of reasons.’
In the 1970s two thirds of the local pastoral community called maldharis who shared the forests with the lions were moved out. But 6000 maldharis continue to live within the forests even today. Vegetarians who rear cattle for diary, these locals revere the lions and have known to be mostly accepting of occasional lion kills of their livestock.
But, over the years both people and lions have been growing in and around the Gir forests. The most recent census of the Asiatic lions in 2015 put their numbers at 523. Never in a century have lion numbers been so promising. But it is this spurt that also makes the lions more vulnerable.
‘The biggest threat to the population on one level is the success that has been achieved so far in conservation,’ points out Chellam.
As numbers grow, so must lion territory. Overcrowded and crammed for space, the carnivores now spill out of the sanctuary. Today, at least 40% of Gir’s lions roam outside the protected area coming dangerously close to 100,000 people and as many cattle in the thousand plus surrounding villages.
Such uneasy proximity has meant losses for people and the animals. As lions move out of the protected forests, in addition to their primary diet of wild boars, deer and antelope, they learn to rely on livestock—causing conflict with the people. This wrestle for space also means the lions are hindered by growing human disturbances. ‘There has been this dramatic change in land use over the years. The once semi-rural natural habitat outside the forest is now dominated by human footprint,’ elaborates Chellam. With ever growing roads, highways, buildings, resorts and wells, the lions tread a territory laden with manmade dangers.
Moving the lions
But what could really spell doom on the lions is what has brought them glory. Their exclusivity as a single wild population of a sub-species could endanger them en masse in case of a calamity. ‘Whether supersonic typhoons, forest fires, political decisions, diseases. It doesn’t matter what the catastrophe is. All your eggs are in one basket with a single population,’ warns Chellam. In 2015, for example a flood claimed 10 lions.
To ensure the lions are safe long-term, there must be other wild populations. In the 1990s research by the Wildlife institute of India (WII) led by Chellam pointed to the necessity of translocating lions. The Indian government initiated the ‘Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project’ to establish another free ranging population of the lions to defend them from extinction. The Kuno Palpur sanctuary 500 miles from Gir in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh was chosen. Once home to lions before they were hunted and exterminated by 1873, the forests were deemed the most suited for a possible second home for the lions.
But today 20 years later, the reintroduction hasn’t begun. The state of Gujarat that prides itself as the sole home of the Asiatic lions has been opposing ‘giving away’ any lions. Following eight years of litigation, India’s Supreme court passed an order in favour of translocating the lions in 2013.
However, the project lies dormant and the lions continue to roam around in their only remaining home—a precarious state of affairs for the only population of Asiatic lions caution conservationists. ‘In Serengeti in 1990 in just three weeks 3000 lions were infected by canine distemper and 1000 lions died,’ Chellam cites a frightening example.
For over a century the Asiatic lions have walked a tightrope. They have been close to the brink of disappearance. Yet, with human efforts and their resilience, they have retained their place as kings of one particular forest. Will they have another chance elsewhere? Only time will tell.