Awareness: Species

Asiatic Lion - Panthera leo persica

Asiatic Lion

Panthera leo persica

Conservation status: listed as Endangered by IUCN

Once upon a time Asiatic lions, a lion sub-species, was widely distributed from Turkey, Southeast Asia to India. Today, their last homes in the wild, in the whole world is restricted to three protected areas - Gir National Park, Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and Pania Sanctuary - Gujarat, India. Asiatic lions are listed as Endangered by IUCN. They are one of the big cats found in India. According to the 14th Asiatic lion census 2015, which covered eight districts and an area of 22,000 square km, has shown a steady increase in the population of Asiatic lions. There are 523 lions that consists 109 male, 201 female,64 sub-adult and 140 cubs in the wilderness of Gujarat. A slim ray of hope in the dark path of a long journey to survival.

The major morphological character of an Asiatic lion is its long fold of skin running along their underside, including their chest and stomach. The manes of Asiatic male lions are not as full as that of African lions. It is very short at the top of the head; due to this character the ears stands out in Asiatic lions. The mane color is darker compared to African lions. They are slightly smaller than African lions. Asiatic female lion’s weigh from 110 to 120kg and male from 160 to 190 kg. Height at the shoulders is up-to 110 cm and length is between 200 to 280cm.

Asiatic lions live in a pride. A pride often will have two females and cubs. At times the pride can be a bit bigger with up to five female lions and cubs. Males join the females only during mating time or when they have a large kill. The availability of prey is the reason behind the smaller prides. Asiatic lions are carnivores. Deer, antelopes, wild boars and buffaloes form their main diet. Timing of the hunt varies depending on the habitat. If the vegetation is thin then hunting mostly happens during the night, if it is thick, then, daytime too. Lions hunt in group as well as alone. Though they prefer larger prey, everything depends on the availability in the habitat. They sneak upon and approach the prey, then charge and knock down or grab to finish off the game. Only one in four attempts ends in a successful kill. They are known for their inactive lifestyle, lions can sleep/rest up to 20 hours.

Mating can take place throughout the year. Male lions reach sexual maturity at the age of five and female at the age of four. The gestation period of Asiatic lions will be between 100 – 119 days. A litter can have one to six cubs. 18 to 26 months is often the period between births.

Asiatic lions nurse the cubs till six months. Cubs start to eat meat from three months of age. Lions spend eight to ten months to perfect their hunting skills. They become independent when they become a year old and become mature at the age of three or four years. Survival rate is very low among cubs; about 80% will die before they reach two years. 16 – 18 years is the life span of an Asiatic lion in the wild.

Photos by: Mona Patel

Once Asiatic lions had widespread distributed from the Middle East to India. In the 18th century they were found across northern India. Unfortunately trophy hunting by Maharajas killed a majority of these majestic animals. By early 20th century there were hardly a dozen of them in the wild, driven to the brink of extinction by hunting, habitat loss and droughts. 1904 was the year when a conservation movement to protect the Asiatic lions was started by the Nawab Mahabat Khanji of Junagadh. In his province, the Nawab banned trophy hunting. But after his death hunting continued. As per the record of the Chief Forest Officer, Junagadh, there were only less 20 Asiatic lions in the Gir forest, in 1913.

From less than 20 to 523 is a sign of revival, but still a long tough journey to get to the flourishing level. Currently the main threat is that the Gir is the only single population of Asiatic lions in the wild. Two hill systems, which comprise dry deciduous forest, thorny forest and savannah, this remaining forests of the Gir and Girnar of Gujarat is the last home of Asiatic lions.

Asiatic lions are territorial animals. A male lion requires around 50 square km and a female around 26 square km. Illegal mining is drying the rivers in the region, which is forcing the lions to migrate to the costal areas. Around 40% of the total lions now live outside the forest area. Number of road kills are increasing. There are more than 20,000 open wells around farmlands, which shares the borders of the forest. These open wells are another major death trap for Asiatic lions. Many have fallen into these wells and died. Farmers using hi-voltage electric fencing to protect crops from grazing animals are a threat to them too.

In 1994, an epidemic killed more than a 1,000 lions in a span of few days in the Serengeti. If something like that happens in the Gir, it will be irreversible disaster for this magnificent animal. Growing human population and related issues like illegal encroachment, deforestation, illegal mining, cattle grazing, natural calamities, human-wildlife conflict, collection of fire wood, forest fire, poaching, tourism, religious pilgrimage, the list of threats are very long.

Photos by: Mona Patel

Awareness programs for nearby communities and involving them in conservation activities goes a long way in reducing man-animal conflicts. Community members can be trained for the roles of wildlife guards or guides, providing them an alternative source of income, which helps to keep them away from activities that lead to danger to the lions. This also leads to cultivating an in-depth relationship with nature and a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of the animals that share this earth with us.

Systematic and regular activities should be initiated among local communities for building awareness. The aim should be to gradually change the present feeling of fear and hatred to love, ownership and the role of protectors.

Build walls for open well to reduce accidents.

Alternative solutions that work as eco-friendly replacement for electric fencing around farmlands to avoid accidents.

Increase the number of artificial water sources for animals, which can reduce their migration to non-forest areas during droughts and summer season. Permission should be denied for construction of roads and railways through the conservation areas.

Strict restriction for human activities inside the forest can reduce human wildlife conflicts.

Frequent awareness programs in schools and educational institutes starting from primary classes on sustainable living, recycling and eco-tourism will help to develop a more eco-friendly earth loving community believing in co-existence.

Increasing the number of trained staffs for patrolling activities to prevent poaching and monitor the parks.

Photos by: Mona Patel

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