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The Last Lions of India

Updated on July 28, 2014

A Symbol of India

The male Asiatic lion is slightly smaller than its African cousin. It's also generally shaggier, but possesses a much smaller mane.
The male Asiatic lion is slightly smaller than its African cousin. It's also generally shaggier, but possesses a much smaller mane. | Source

Introduction

Once, not so long ago the mighty lion, the so called ‘King of the Beasts’ roamed widely across the planet. In fact they enjoyed the widest distribution of any mammal except us. From the South American Pampas, to the frigid north of Siberia, lions stalked the vast herds of large herbivores, including the iconic woolly mammoth. Sadly today, this species has disappeared from most of its range, largely down to the rise of man. As predators ourselves, the lion became a natural competitor, so as our populations increased, so the lions decreased. Also many of the large herbivores that the lions relied upon vanished at the end of the last ice age, possibly down to climate change or human hunting or a combination of the two.

Today, the lion is the ultimate symbol of Africa, and whenever you think of them, you imagine an imposing male with that shaggy mane striding confidently across the savannah, or you imagine a strong, athletic lionesses chasing down an equally fleet footed zebra. But what we often tend to forget, is that there are still lions that live wild outside of Africa today. These are the Asiatic or Indian lions, which just a century ago roamed across vast swathes of the Asian continent, but is presently restricted to a tiny enclave in India, known as the Gir National Park.

Did You Know?

Most of us know that the Romans liked to throw any Christian prisoners to the lions in famous arenas such as the Coliseum. What most of us don't know though, is that they probably used the Asiatic lion to bring death; as they were still present in the Greek borderlands. Although they may have used the Barbary lion as well, as they were present in many of Rome's North African provinces.

Tale of Woe

As recently as 2000 years ago, the term Asiatic lion would have been considered incorrect, as their range extended right across into Southern Europe, as far west as Greece. They were numerous right across the Arabian Peninsula, and of course ranged widely across the Indian sub-continent. Over the proceeding centuries, successive waves of human empires rose and fell like the tide right across the region, and inevitably the lions gradually faded away.

Each one of the powerful civilisations that have swept across India over the last two millennia all had one common passion – the hunting of game, and thus the lion, regarded by many as the ultimate predator became a highly prised catch.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the lions that had once terrorised Roman colonists in North Africa had been reduced to a rather pitiful population teetering on the edge of extinction in the Atlas Mountains, and the Asiatic Lion had already vanished from much of their former strongholds in Asia, clinging onto existence in Iraq, India and possibly Pakistan.

Thinking of Heading to Gir?

How to get there:

Internal flights serve the nearby towns of Diu and Porbandar, you then continue by road to Gir.

When to go?

November to February is the best time to go for the best wildlife experiences. Avoid going during the hot summer (April and May) and June-September is monsoon season, so avoid that too.

Highlights:

As well as the lions; Gir is also home to leopards, striped hyenas, and smaller carnivores such as mongooses. The open grasslands are home to chital and sambar deer, wild boar, chinkara gazelles, and two species of antelope. To the north of Gir, is the Dhrangadhra Sanctuary, home to the endangered Asiatic wild ass, the ancestor of the donkey.

Royalty to the Rescue

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Asiatic subspecies of lion was literally hanging on by its retractable claws; just two dozen lived within the confines of an area of teak forest in Northern India known as Gir. The local prince was one Nawab Rasulkhanji of Junagadh, who like most men in regal power possessed an insatiable passion for hunting. Apparently he was a very good marksman, and specialised in hunting leopards. Fortunately he saw fit to spare their larger relatives, perhaps out of reverence for the lion’s status in Indian culture and folklore. Whatever it was, he took the first steps towards safeguarding the subspecies future by placing strict restrictions on hunting them.

After India’s independence in 1947, the fledgling government formalised the Nawab’s restrictions by creating special lion reserves on the Southern tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat, with the most famous being the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, officially created in 1965. Over the years, the boundaries of the sanctuary have expanded by over 900 miles squared, incorporating vast tracts of dry, hilly forest; today it’s known as the Gir Conservation Area. The last census of Gir’s lions was conducted in 2010 and the good news was that there are currently 411 individuals roaming around Gir. The bad news is that, that number is deceptively high, as up to 150 lions are sub adults or cubs, and many of them will fail to make it to adulthood.

The Lions Sanctuary

A map of the Gir Conservation Area.
A map of the Gir Conservation Area. | Source

A Male Asiatic Lion

Believe it or not, this is a full grown male lion.
Believe it or not, this is a full grown male lion. | Source

Unique Characteristics

The Lions of Gir really did come very close to extinction; the best evidence for this is a rather prominent ridge of loose skin along the bellies of mostly the male lions. This extraordinary trait only crops up occasionally in their African relatives, but is widespread in the Asiatic variety. Scientists think that it arose as a result of the lions experiencing a ‘population bottleneck’. Basically, the relentless hunting carried out by humans down the ages reduced the lions to such low numbers, that they were effectively forced to inbreed. Today, all of the remaining 411 lions are closely related, their survival is by no means guaranteed, because the lack of genetic diversity leaves them vulnerable to disease and consequently threatens to undermine all of the hard work that has gone into bring the species back from the very brink of oblivion.

Apart from a few small physical differences, the Asiatic lion is ecologically similar to the African one. The nucleus of each pride is made up of a number of related females, protected by small coalitions of closely related males that work together to guard the females from any potential rivals. However, in India things are done a little differently; African prides typically consist of maybe over half a dozen females, but in Gir, a pride can literally consist of a couple of males protecting as little as two or three females. Curiously, Asiatic lions also prefer to spend more time alone than their famously social cousins in Africa.

The Lion's Chief Prey

A herd of chital deer, the primary prey of the lions of Gir.
A herd of chital deer, the primary prey of the lions of Gir. | Source
A Sambar deer stag. These deer are also a top prey item of India's other symbolic cat, the tiger.
A Sambar deer stag. These deer are also a top prey item of India's other symbolic cat, the tiger. | Source

Differences in Behaviour

So, we’ve already clarified that Asiatic Lions are slightly different in terms of the makeup of their pride, but what about their behaviour? Do subtle differences exist there too? The simple answer is yes, and the main reason behind it is food. As a general rule of thumb, the larger the prey, the more sociable the lions are likely to be. This helps to explain the relatively large lion prides that live on African savannahs packed full of large herbivores such as buffalo, wildebeest and zebra. The need to defend their kills from other cats, dogs, hyenas, and possibly early hominids probably played a key role in forcing lions to band together early on in their evolution.

It makes sense, because imagine a lone lioness out in the open with a recently downed zebra, very quickly she would attract the wrong kind of attention, so having your relatives beside you to back you up is a very sensible strategy. You don’t get as much food, but surely it’s much better to share with your family than have it stolen by a strange lion or by other scavengers.

Usually, the rule is among larger predators, that the smaller the prey the less likely that it will be lost to competitors, the reason for this is very simple, they can be eaten much faster. The Gir Lions face less competition for their food because their chief prey item is a species of spotted deer known as the chital; they’re probably the same size as the European fallow deer, so somewhere in the region of 110 pounds.

As well as their food, the landscape of Gir itself helps to keep the lions smaller than their African cousins. The lions roam a land of rolling hills, deep valleys cloaked in hundreds of acres of thick teak forest. Where the land isn’t forest, semi arid scrubland dominates and this helps to conceal the lion’s kills from other predators.

Some experts who have studied these extraordinary lions have gone as far as to suggest that the cat’s social structure is gradually breaking down. You could say that the lions were evolving, somehow becoming less like lions and more like your conventional cat. But the reality is that this remarkable behavioural shift simply indicates the tremendous flexibility of the sociability of lions.

Despite the stark differences in social structure between the two subspecies, the Asiatic lions are just as effective at hunting as the great buffalo hunters of Kruger or the elephant hunters of Northern Botswana.

Conflict

The lions of Africa and India share one common threat to their survival, the seemingly overwhelming presence of the local people and their livestock. On occasion, the Gir Lions do take domesticated buffalo and cattle that belong to the local Maldhari people. As you can imagine the loss of precious livestock leads to bitter conflict, after all if your entire livelihood is tied up in livestock, you most certainly wouldn’t want any predator picking them off at will.

By the start of the 1970s, the Indian government, conscious of losing one of India’s most powerful symbolic animals, implemented a rather radical policy. At that time, more than 4500 people and 25,000 livestock lived and moved within Gir’s boundaries. Over the next decade or so, two thirds of the local Maldhari were moved out of the area. The plan though was highly controversial and still sparks fury among the Maldhari today, but it was pivotal in saving the lions from almost certain extinction. The lions’ chief natural prey no longer faced competition from domestic livestock, and the land was now free of people cutting down trees for cattle fodder and firewood.

As an indication of just how much has changed, before the 1970s, Gir was home to just 6000 wild grazers, mostly chital, wild boar and a larger species of deer known as the sambar. In 2010, the number had grown to 65,000 ten times more than it had been just forty years previously. However, there are worrying signs that the human pressures that nearly condemned India’s last lions to extinction are returning. Today, 6000 people live within the National Park, exactly the same number that was present in 1970. The herders and their animals have access to virtually all of the area, apart from a core area where most of the lions live. An extra 100,000 people plus another 100,000 cattle and buffalo inhabit villages that dot the forests boundaries.

Astonishingly, despite these obviously worrying changes, the lions have managed to expand outside of Gir and set up small populations in small wooded areas, some of which are home to as many as one in four of the entire population. However, most areas of suitable habitat have now been occupied, which hinders further expansion and thus limits the lion’s chances of setting up prides in new areas.

Saving India's Last Lions

In 1994 a delegation of experts and conservationists travelled from India to South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. The leader of the expedition was prominent Indian lion expert, Ravi Chellam. Chellam wished to observe how Phinda were successfully able to transport large and dangerous game animals. Phinda’s objective was simple, to recreate thriving populations by relocating lions under pressure from people into wilder, more desirable country. They aimed to re-establish lions in areas where they had disappeared decades before due to conflicts with humanity.

By the time of Chellam’s visit, the ingenious technique now dubbed ‘wild-wild translocation’ was so slick and organised that lions now roamed once again over vast swathes of their former range. Ravi and his team left South Africa, inspired and with an abundance of insights into how exactly India’s lions could be saved. The task was to try to set up a new population of Asiatic lions outside of their current base at Gir.

In the fifteen years or so that have passed since the expedition, various conservation initiatives have helped to increase the lions population, but only within Gir itself. But the lion's refuge is an island, and it’s an increasingly overcrowded island. Sadly, as of yet, the strategies successfully employed in South Africa have yet to be replicated in India. The Asiatic lion’s future still hangs by the narrowest of narrow threads.

The lion’s best and probably last hope probably lies with Gujarat’s Eastern neighbour, the state of Madhya Pradesh, which have been frantically preparing the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary to receive the lions that will save the species. The reserve lies around 500 miles away from Gir, and although it covers a smaller area, the surrounding landscape is dense forest, ten times bigger than anything at Gir. This is quite simply the last chance for a lion that once haunted the nightmares of the Greeks and the Romans.

The state government, along with its national partner have poured the equivalent of millions of pounds into Kuno-Palpur. Like Gir, they have taken the radical step of relocating a total of 24 villages, which in turn has led to widespread forest regeneration and a huge increase in the wild herbivore population; the only missing component is the lions themselves.

However, India’s last lions may never get a chance to roam Kuno-Palpur, there’s nothing biologically or socio-economically that’s stopping this miracle for happening. It turns out that it’s all about politics; Gujarat is fiercely proud of its lions and refuses to be parted with its ultimate status symbol. You can see their point of view, after all, the lions are a huge tourism draw, and Gujarat would certainly not want to lose such a valuable monopoly.

But Gujarat’s stance is a huge gamble, the lion’s population is small and isolated and thus highly vulnerable to disease, one epidemic could spell the end. But it’s unfair to judge Gujarat harshly, after all if there wasn’t for their hard work and dedication, the Asiatic lion would already be extinct. It’s just that they have been too successful; the lions have outgrown their home in less than fifty years, and now need a new one.

I end this hub pondering whether our descendents will still be able to travel to Gir in 100 years time, and still experience the chilling feeling that everybody experiences when they hear the mighty roar of a lion for real. Time remains to be seen, but I certainly hope so, both for the lion’s sake and our sake. If the people of India were to lose both the tiger and the lion in the near future, it would be a huge tragedy,it would quite simply mean the severance of a cultural link going back probably to the first humans that set foot in India, tens of thousands of years ago. I hope that terrible day never comes.

A Place in India's Heart

This is the flag of the Indian army. In the top right hand corner, you'll notice the three lions. Imagine if such a symbolic animal were ever to disappear.
This is the flag of the Indian army. In the top right hand corner, you'll notice the three lions. Imagine if such a symbolic animal were ever to disappear. | Source
India's national emblem. A sign of how much the lion means to Indian cultural identity.
India's national emblem. A sign of how much the lion means to Indian cultural identity. | Source

© 2012 James Kenny

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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      "You could say that the lions were evolving, somehow becoming less like lions and more like your conventional cat".

      So long as my cat doesn't start becoming like a lion I don't care.

      Thanks James for this very interesting article. I hope the lions survive. Maybe the authorities should import some African lions to combat the inbreeding.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Christopher. I was thinking the same thing about importing African lions. After all, I have heard about tigers being imported into South Africa to help with their survival, can't see why they can't do the same with the lions. Thanks for dropping by, always appreciated.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 5 years ago from United States

      I have always had a fascination with lions. I feel sad their numbers are dwindling in the wild.

    • pateluday profile image

      Uday Patel 5 years ago from Jabalpur, MP, India

      Lion Survive in a small pocket at Gir National Park in Gujarat State of India. About four hundred lions thrive here. There is need to create another pocket of existence in India. Kuno Palpur was chosen and developed as a lion habitat as these big cats where found here once.

      The translocation could not take place due to refusal of Gujarat Government to deliver the big cats from Gir.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks angela, it saddens me as well. I hope they survive long enough for me to be able to see them in the wild.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi patel, thanks for the info, I really do hope that Gujarat put the lions interest before their own, and do the right thing. I still remain hopeful. Thanks for dropping by.

    • Vegas Elias profile image

      Vegas Elias 5 years ago from Mumbai

      Hi Kenny, a very interesting article indeed. The greed of man has gone a long way towards leading to the extinction of many animal species. Hope the powers that be in India read your article and do something about it. I liked your article and voted you up for it.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Vegas, I hope so too, because to allow a creature like the lion go extinct would be one of the worst tragedies in history.

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi J ... fascinating hub.

      Sadly, there will always be conflict with people who survive through animal rearing and lions. I think the only way to ever combat this is to expand the tourism aspect and persuade the animal husbanders to change occupation to tourist guides etc. Give them a stake in the lions survival as it were.

      Lions in Africa are usually fairly tolerant of tourists within limits ... I wonder if their Asian cousins would be as forthcoming?

      It may not be advisable to interbreed African lions with Asian ones as that may dilute some of the features that makes the Asian lion what it is ... but then, if it is a case of healthy survival, who knows.

      Thanks for this hub, J ... I really was not aware that these animals existed ... and I love cats of all sizes. :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Angie, you make a good point about the risks of introducing African lions, as they would pollute the gene pool further. But unfortunately the Asiatic lion is running out of time and options. Thanks for popping by.

    • kariannr profile image

      kariannr 5 years ago from Ogden, Utah

      That was so awesome. I didn't know that there was such thing as an Asiatic lion, and it makes more sense now when I think of lions popping up in ancient writings and engravings outside of Africa.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks kariannr, lions were once common in Europe and in the Americas, its just such a shame that their range has been reduced so pitifully. I appreciate you taking the time to drop by.

    • katyzzz profile image

      katyzzz 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Lions are such magnificent creatures, I feel they do communicate with us especially from their habitats in wild life zoos. It's such a great feeling to feel you are communicating, mutually, without words, I love you comes to mind. I want to reach out and hug them, but that would probably be most unwise.

      Thank you for informing us of lion differences. Well done

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much katyzzz. I very much appreciate you dropping by.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Really enjoyed this Hub. I'm not sure I even knew that there was a population of lions in India? It's great that India is taking steps to protect this majestic creature and hopefully that continues. It would be a tragedy if this beautiful animal were to become extinct someday. Thanks for educating us.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem, bdegiulio, its startling to think they once roamed across most of Eurasia. My hope is that one day, they can be reintroduced into suitable areas of their former range in India and further afield. Appreciate you dropping by, and thanks for the fan mail.

    • profile image

      life enrich 5 years ago from bhavnagar

      good

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you.

    • ram_m profile image

      ram_m 5 years ago from India

      A very well researched and informative hub. Thank you

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much ram, glad you liked it.

    • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

      Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      I heard about the Indian Lion when I was in high school. I have always thought it had gone the way of the Dodo. I am glad that there is an effort to save it but it seems a little too late.

      1. could crossing with the African Lion improve the diversity of the genes?

      2. Perhaps the Indian government should cooperate with the Kenyan government which actively makes efforts to conserve wildlife. The African Lion is also under threat, as is the elephant and rhino, which makes it even more prudent for intergovermental strategies.

      Thanks for this well researched hub that has opened my eyes to the plight of the king of the jungle - shared

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Emmanuel, cross breeding the two subspecies would eventually of course result in the extinction of the two separate subspecies, but at least the lion would survive, so considering that the African lion is in trouble too, it might be a case of having to do it rather than considering it.

      It would be a good idea for the two governments to cooperate as they are home to many similar species of large mammal that are under threat from extinction. But it may turn out to be politics that scuppers any chance of saving the lion, as I know the State of Gujarat are very proud of their lions, and so the idea of crossing them with Africans may not go down too well. Thanks for visiting.

    • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

      Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      The crossing could be judicious, just to get some additional genes before reverting to inbreeding. I think cattle and even dog breeders do that by getting a bull from a distant geographical area though of course it is usually the same breed. I read somewhere that even the South African Lion has inbred rather dangerously due to small habitats. Can we find email contacts of some officials in Gujarat state? I wouldn't mind throwing a spanner in the works just to stir the 'bees' so to speak. Cheers!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hehehe...I guess the best way to contact them is through Gir National Park or through the Gujarat government itself. I agree that its at least worth a try for the lions sake, but whether they'll bother to listen is another thing. Thanks Emmanuel.

    • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

      Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      JKenny, trust me to get back to you with info from Gir National Park - your hub has raised serious concerns that are no laughing matter. Those government officials should be reading this hub. Incidentally, do you know that in June Maasai herdsmen killed six lions in one day. The lion is threatened everywhere - King no more. Have a great day.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I actually remember watching a documentary showing Maasai men killing lions as part of some sort of manhood initiation ceremony. Thanks Emmanuel.

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      A beautifully written, heart-rending and informative account of the natural history and plight of the Asiatic Lion. sadly, as it is a subspecies it won't be given priority over other members of the genus whose chances are greater. It's a great shame.

      Still, between the captive breeding programmes and reintroduction schemes, there may yet be hope.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks whowas, I hope so too, because the Asiatic lion may be a subspecies, but as Europeans it's a very important species as it was common in Europe in ancient times.

    • profile image

      Gopi Bhushan 4 years ago

      Nice article and elaborated in details.

      Thanks Jkenny

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Gopi! Glad you liked it.

    • profile image

      Srimaa Group 4 years ago

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you for the link.

    • zaton profile image

      Zaton-Taran 3 years ago from California

      Very, very good and comprehensive lion hub. Well-written and informative. Are the lions of Gir not extinct today? Haven't heard or read much about them in my research for my own African lion hub.

      https://hubpages.com/education/Wild-Cats-Facts-Abo...

    • zaton profile image

      Zaton-Taran 3 weeks ago from California

      I wish the lions of India were still with us to add to the richness of the biosphere. It would be truly wonderful to see them in a zoo somewhere.

      http://pinstor.us/articles/african-lion-facts-the-...

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