Asiatic Lion in India

Asiatic lion
Asiatic Lion
A Rare Subspecies of Lion in India 
is Under Constant Threat of Extinction
 -Dr. Arvind Singh 

The Asiatic lion which is also known as the Indian lion is a subspecies of lion found in Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary of Gujarat state in India. It is also the state animal of Gujarat. This subspecies had a wide historic distribution across Southwest Asia is now restricted to a single population in Gir Forest of India. 

The scientific name of Asiatic lion is Panthera leo persica and it belongs to the Felidae Family of Carnivora. It is one of the five big cats found in India besides Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, and Snow leopard and Clouded leopard. Due to small population size, the Asiatic lion has been listed as ‘Endangered’ in Red List of Threatened Species by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Endangered species are those which are facing the threat of extinction.

Distribution Range:
The Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Gujarat is the only habitat for the Asiatic lion in the world. An area of about 1,412 square kilometres was declared as Sanctuary for their conservation in 1965. Later a National Park covering an area of about 259 square kilometres was established where no human interference is allowed. Only Maldharis (Nomadic tribal herdsman who live in the Gujarat state) have the right to graze their livestock in the surrounding area of the Sanctuary. In Gujarat, five protected areas currently exist to protect the Asiatic lion which include Gir Sanctuary, Gir National Park, Pania Sanctuary, Mitiyala Sanctuary and Girnar Sanctuary.

In January 2014 an Asiatic lion was spotted in Deva Vatala National Park located in independent Jammu and Kashmir (Pakistan).

Asiatic lion formerly occurred in Iran, Iraq, Baluchistan, from Sind in the West to Bengal in the east and from Rampur and Ruhelkhand in the North to the Narmada in the South.

Physical Characteristics:
Asiatic lion differs from the African lion by less inflated auditory bullae, a larger tail tuft and a less developed mane. Asiatic lion is slightly smaller than the African lion.
The Asiatic lion fur ranges in colour from ruddy-tawny, heavily speckled with black, to sandy or buffish-grey, sometimes with a silvery sheen in certain lights. Males have only moderate mane growth at the top of the head so that their ears are always visible. The mane is scanty on the cheeks and throat with where it is only 10 cm long. Skull length in adult males ranges from 330 to 340 mm, and while in females it ranges from 292 to 302 mm. The Asiatic lion grows to a height of about 90 cm with a length ranging from 200 - 280 cm. The long and hardtail of the animal grows to an additional length of 60 - 90 cm. Adult male weighs between 160 to 190 kg while the female weighs between 110 to 120 kg.

Habitat and Ecology:
Asiatic lion occupies remnant forest habitats in the two hill systems of Gir and Girnar that comprise Gujarat’s largest tracts of dry deciduous forest, thorny forest and savanna and provide valuable habitat for diverse flora and fauna. The Gir Forest is dominated by teak (Tectona grandis) due to the silvicultural practices of the Gujarat State Forest Department. The forest which covered about 2,600 square kilometres at the turn of the century has since shrunk to less than half this size. Most of the remaining forest is included in the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Asiatic lions mostly live in pride. These pride can sometimes have up to 3 adult males but it is always one that is a dominant leader. The males are lazy. The females do all the hunting. However, once the animal is hunted, the male always moves first to take the meal. Asiatic lion prefers large prey species within a weight range of 190-550 kg. Their main prey species consists of blue bull, spotted deer, goats, buffaloes and occasionally also smaller animals. However, domestic cattle have historically been a major component of the Asiatic lion’s diet.

The breeding season is timed along with the onset of winter in the months of October and November. The gestation period is of about 3 and half months with litters ranging from 3 to 4 in number. The female breeds on an average of every two years. The life expectancy of Asiatic lion ranges between 20 - 30 years.

Threats to their Survival:
The Asiatic lion exists as a single subpopulation and is thus vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events such as an epidemic or forest fire. Poaching is also a threat to the survival of Asiatic lion as there are reports that organized gangs have switched attention from tigers to these lions. Thirty-four animals were reported killed in 2007. There have also been a number of drowning incidents after lion fell into wells. The Asiatic lions are killed by electrical fences which are established by farmers to protect their crops from the blue bull. They are also trampled to death by speeding trucks and trains while straying outside of the forest area.

Inbreeding depression is also a threat to Asiatic lion.

Currently, the Asiatic lion exists as a single isolated population numbering approximately 350 individuals. At least 100 individuals are outside the Gir Forest protected area. A total number of mature individuals is about 175. In 2000 the population of the Asiatic lion has shrunk to 175 individuals consequently the animal was listed as “Critically Endangered” in Red List of Threatened Species. However, the population was recovered to 411 individuals in 2010.

Asiatic lion is included in Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is fully protected in India. The following actions are needed to conserve the Asiatic lion.

1. To reestablish the wild populations of the Asiatic lion in its former range to ensure the population's reproductive health and to prevent it from being affected by an outbreak of an epidemic. 

2. To regularly monitor the population of the Asiatic lion in Gir forest of Gujarat. 

3. To strictly enforce the CITES and Wildlife Protection Act. 

4. To successfully implement the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project.

What is Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project?
The Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project is an initiative of the Indian Government to save the Asiatic lion from extinction in the wild by means of reintroduction. The project aims to establish a second independent population of Asiatic lions at the Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh. However, the translocation is unpopular in Gujarat and has been bitterly contested by the State Government. 

Conclusively it can be said that Asiatic lion is one of the most endangered subspecies of lion concentrated in one area and hence is under constant threat of being wiped out by some deadly epidemic. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to conserve this most majestic animal by reestablishing the populations in its former range.
Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with an area of specialization in Ecology. He is a dedicated Researcher having more than four dozen published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, India.

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