In our last blog we spoke about the Asiatic cheetah, a species which has faced many challenges, but has now made a comeback in India. In this blog, we will speak about the Asiatic lion, which was also once doomed, but no longer! There are rays of hope for this extraordinary mammal.
Grim History of Asiatic Lions
The Asiatic lions are linked to their African cousins. According to wildlife experts, the first wave of lion expansion out of Africa occurred about 118,000 years ago from East Africa into West Asia. The second wave took place in the late Pleistocene (about 10,000-11,000 years ago) or early Holocene era (present day period after the Pleistocene epoch) from Southern Africa towards East Africa. The Asiatic lion is genetically closer to North and West African lions than to the prides comprising of East and Southern African lions. The two groups diverged about 186,000–128,000 years ago.
In India, lions once ranged over most of the country, but severe hunting by Indian royalty and colonial powers led to a steady and marked decline in their numbers. By the turn of the 19th century, they were confined to the Gir Forest, in Gujarat in North-West India. They were protected by the Nawab of Junagadh in his private hunting grounds. These lions had evolved from just a dozen individuals that had survived in the early 20th century. Today, their population is 523, up from 411 in 2010.
Asiatic Lion vs African Lion
Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than African lions. Adult males weigh about 353-419 lbs (160-190 Kgs) while females weigh around 243-265 lbs (110-120 Kgs). The most striking morphological character, which is always seen in Asiatic lions, and rarely in African lions, is a longitudinal fold of skin running along its under belly. The fur ranges in color from ruddy tawny, heavily speckled with black, to sandy or buff-grey, sometimes with a silvery sheen. Males have only moderate mane growth, so that their ears are always visible. The somewhat larger African lions have less pronounced belly fold, and their mane is mostly thick and huge so that their ears are not visible.
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Asiatic Lions live in groups called a pride just like their African relatives. Prides are family units that may include up to three males, a dozen or so females, and their young. All of a pride's lionesses are related and female cubs typically stay with the group as they age. Young males eventually leave and may establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male. Their prey species include Nilgai (blue bull), sambar, chital (and other deer and antelopes), wild pigs and occasionally, water buffalo.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
In the Gir Forest National Park in India, the lions face the usual threats of poaching and habitat fragmentation. Three major roads and a railway track pass through the park. There are also three big temples inside the forest that attract a large number of pilgrims, particularly during certain times of the year. However, due to excellent management by the forest officials, there has been an increase in the lion population. As a result, lions also stray outside the protected forest area, and come in contact with humans although humans getting hurt is extremely rare. In order to avoid cross breeding and straying of lions, the authorities created another zone, isolated from the previous one, in Gujarat, where a small number of lions were released. This park is also open to visitors. And there is a concrete plan to open more such zones in different parts of the country, in a step-by-step manner.
As you can see, there is hope that the Asiatic lion, just like the Asiatic cheetah, has a brighter future in India.