Lions : An introduction
Lion is one of the largest member of the cat family. The name 'Lion" has captivated human imagination since ancient times, and has earned its name 'king of the beasts'.Today, the vulnerable population of less than 50,000 African lion ranges from southern Sahara to Southern Africa excluding Congo rain forest belt. While the African Lion may be vulnerable, its only living relative from another continent, the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica), is less than 400. Out of the eight sub-species recognised, only six sub-species of lion are alive in the wild today. The other two are claimed to be alive in captivity, but scientific proofs do not support their validity of claims.
The different sub-species of Lion alive today are :
1. Asiatic lion, 2. West African lion, 3. North East Congo lion, 4. East African lion (Massai lion), 5. Southwest African lion (Katanga lion) and 6. Southeast African lion (Transvaal lion).
Out of the six sub-species of Lions, the Asiatic lion is the one most vulnerable to extinction.
Differences between Asiatic and African lions
100,000 years of separation has produced some variations between the Asiatic and the African lions. One may notice when we compare them :
1. Asiatic lions are smaller with sparser manes than their African cousins. Male Asiatic lions weigh between 350-420 pounds, while females weigh between 240-365 pounds. On the other hand, male African lions weigh between 330-500 pounds (800 pound male holds the record) but the females weigh about the same as their asiatic cousins.
2. In Asiatic lions, the longitudinal skin fold running along the belly is prominent and present in both sexes, while the skin fold is rarely seen in their African counterparts.
3. Asiatic lions have thicker tuft of hairs on their elbows and tail to distinguish them from African lions.
4. The skull difference is perhaps the most interesting point. Fifty percent of Asiatic lions have two small apertures or holes (bifurcated infra-orbital foramina) that allow nerves and blood vessels to reach the eye, while there is only one infraorbital foramen in African lions.
5. Average pride strength in Asiatic lion is usually two or three, while African lion pride starts from 5 to many. Asiatic male lions do not form social group with females and they associate with female lions only when mating or sharing food. In fact, male Asiatic lions group together to defend their territory against rival males.
Asiatic lions : A history of struggle
Asiatic Lion is the only lion from a continent other than Africa. It is called Indian Lion in India and Persian Lion in the middle east. Asiatic lions once roamed the continent from northern Greece, across Southwest Asia, to central India. The last sighting of Lion outside India was in 1944, a dead lioness in Khuzestan province, in Iran. Now, it is found only in the Gir forest of Gujarat, India. By the turn of the 20th century, only 13 Lions (1907) were reported to have survived in Gir. With all effort, the Nawab of Junagadh banned lion hunting within his province. The effort proved worthy and by 1936, the number came up to 234. As per the 2006 census, there are 359 lions living in the Gir forest within an area of 545 square miles. Can you imagine the problems of more than 300 lions forced to live within an area of less than 550 square miles and that too from a very small gene pool (all closely related)? The result, man-animal conflicts and inbreeding. Some lions venture too far in search of easy prey and better territory that they occasionally come into contact with humans. Some are poisoned for attacking livestock; some are electrocuted by farmers' fences; while, some fall into open wells. Inbreeding can also be a serious concern. Inbred population can suffer from any disease due to weakened immune system and even lead to infertility.
Poaching is another concern. Many lions are killed each year for their skins , claws and bones as eastern market demands are very high. Lion bones and body parts are used as substitutes to tiger body parts. The biggest concern is the presence of Maldharis, a vegetarian pastoral community living in the forest. The Maldharis set their livestock into the forest and disturb the natural forest food chain. They collect firewoods from the forest and sometimes aid poachers for small tips. Relocating them outside forest land helps very little as scarce livestock feeds outside the reserve forced them to graze back into the same forest. Illegal mining, recently, added another challenge.
Second home for Asiatic lion
With so little space in the Gir Protected Area, there is a chance that lions may die out completely if an epidemic sweeps the small population. An example can be given from the outbreak of Canine Distemper killing nearly 1000 Serengeti lions (Northern Tanzania) in 1994. Besides, reintroduction for the sake of another independent population other than Gir can help diversify the gene. Kuno-Palpur wildlife Sanctuary, a 133 square mile area, in Madhya Pradesh was selected for the second home. Asiatic lions had completely died out from this place in 1873. Now, in order to reintroduce them, more than twenty villages have been relocated. The place is ideal for lions, except for competition with a bigger cat, the Tiger. Abundance of prey and excellent geographical settings with windswept grasslands punctuated with trees and low shrub make the place ideal. After all the arrangements made, the Gujarat government is not willing to give out even a small percentage (five to ten individuals) of its lions for their better future. Zoo bred lions from Hyderabad and Delhi are reported to substitute the Gir lions. It is doubtful whether lions will really surive in their second home.