The Last Lions of India
A Symbol of India
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.
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 Male Asiatic Lion
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
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.
More on the Asiatic Lion and Gir National Park
- Naturetrek Wildlife Holidays – the UK’s leading wildlife tour specialist
Professionally organised, expertly guided wildlife watching holidays and tours worldwide with Naturetrek – the UK’s leading wildlife tour specialist.
- The Official website of the Gujarat State Lion Conservation Society
- Asiatic Lions @ nationalgeographic.com
An article on the Asiatic lion from National Geographic.
- CSG Species Accounts: Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica)
This website presents a highly detailed overview of the Asiatic lion. This link relays the principal threats to the Asiatic lion today.
- Conservation History Of Gir National Park
An account of Gir's history from India's premier holiday website.
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.
More on the Asiatic Lion's Future
A detailed article highlighting the Asiatic lion's history and conservation.
- : Samrakshan : Livelihood and Conservation
The website of Kuno-Palpur, the wildlife sanctuary that provides the last hope for the Asiatic lion.
An article from the Hindu Times that highlights the need to relocate some of Gir's lions.
More from Amazon
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
© 2012 James Kenny