The deep jungles of India are famed for their strange and wonderful beasts; the Bengal tiger, the pygmy elephant and the Indian rhino, but hidden in the small Gir Forest National Reserve of Gujarat State lives the little known Asiatic lion.
Once found roaming across India and the Middle East the Asiatic lion population was decimated to just 13 individuals around 1907 following years of persecution by trophy hunters. By 1975, after the banning of hunting, the species was awarded protection and the population rose to a meagre 185 lions.
In the last three decades the population has risen from the brink of extinction into a conservation success story to around 411 individuals today. The expansion of the population’s range into the neighbouring Girnar Forest has also increased the lion’s habitat from 1,883km2 to c. 10,000km2.
Despite a slow, but promising, population increase an estimated 50 lions die annually due to a variety of threats. One tragic cause of death is drowning when lions fall into deep, open-pit wells that are common in the region.
The Asiatic lion has quite distinct physical characteristics such as prominent tufts of hair on their elbows and at the end of their tails. What is most notable is their size in comparison to the African lion. Asiatic lions are significantly smaller than African lions and the males often have smaller, sparser manes. Such features were once thought to have derived from thousands of years of evolution however recent studies have suggested intense inbreeding over recent generations has resulted in such characteristics.
Recent approval by the Supreme Court of India will see the movement of some individuals from the Gir Forest to the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in 2013 in hopes of combating an ongoing inbreeding depression problem. There are however major concerns regarding the level of poaching in this area, the differing climatic conditions and insufficient prey within the sanctuary to support a viable lion population.
The Asiatic lion is under threat from:
- Habitat loss
- Prey loss
- Human-lion conflict
Due to the incredibly small and isolated nature of the entire population a natural environmental disaster such as the outbreak of a single epidemic disease, a severe drought or major bush fire could see the extinction of the species.
Image: © Dr. Pramod Bansode | Dreamstime.com