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The Secret Lions Of India

The only wild Asiatic lions in the world have survived, and now they have a chance to thrive.

By Vicki Croke

Rupal Vaidya-female Asiatic lion

A female Asiatic lion in the Gir forest. Rupal Vaidya/Wikimedia.

When we think of lions, most of us think of Africa. But in India, there exists one tiny community of wild Asian lions, a remnant of a once much larger population.

And they’re making headlines right now—their future is the center of a political debate in India.

Vicki talks with Here&Now’s Jeremy Hobson and Robin Young about the future of these lions:

These lions are the very definition of resilience—they’ve been hunted down to practically nothing—and they have shown that if they’re given half a chance, they can survive, and even thrive. And it may be time for another magic trick to help these cats.

In ancient times these lions were widespread from the Middle East to Greece to India. In the 18th century they were mostly found across northern India, where they were hunted as trophy animals by princes and maharajas and by their colonial bosses from the British Empire.

And by the 20th century habitat loss and hunting had reduced these cats to a population estimated to be as low as perhaps only a dozen animals.

These lions have found refuge in a 540 square mile oasis—The Gir Forest —a national park and sanctuary in what is now the Indian state of Gujarat.

Eric Gaba-Gujarat map with Gir

Gujarat map with Gir National Park. Courtesy of Eric Gaba.

They look and behave a lot like their African cousins. Most of us would be hard-pressed to distinguish the two sub-species physically.

Though the manes of these males are not as lush as those of African lions, and they have bigger, fuller tail tufts, and more prominent ears.

They also have a characteristic fold of skin running the length of their bellies.

And, in general, they’re slightly smaller than their African cousins—though still formidable. A male can weigh a little over four hundred pounds. And if you bumped into one in the Gir Forest, you would know you were looking at a lion.

Asiatic lion roaring in Gir. Courtesy of Manisha Rajput/Compare the Marsh Tit.

Here they hunt wild boar and deer instead of wildebeest and zebra.

And, although lions are the only social big cat, the Asian lions are a little less social than African lions.

They organize themselves in a slightly different way from African lions. The groups, or “prides” are a little smaller. And instead of the males ruling a pride of females, the two sexes mostly live apart, except for mating. So the females run the prides and the males, often in brotherly coalitions, stop in to mate. And because they live separately, the male Asian lions do much more hunting for their own supper than the African lions.

And their strategy is working.

The Asiatic lion population has grown over the decades and their status has gone from critically endangered to just endangered—and the last census in 2010 put the number at 411.

Asim Patel-AsiaticLionMale

Male Asiatic lion in the Gir forest. Asim Patel/Wikimedia.

By contrast, there are, at the most recent count, more than two-thousand tigers in India.

But starting next week, May 2, a huge lion census will start—covering a large area outside the park, and involving 750 people, and for the first time incorporating camera traps, (which have already been set up), which will give us an up-to-date count.

And yet, the good news about their growing population is tempered by the fact that the lions are running out space. The Gir Forest is surrounded by a sea of humanity—the population in the state of Gujarat is about sixty million—and dispersing lions—the younger ones going to make a life of their own away from their families—are getting into trouble and dying.

It’s been reported that forty percent of the population now lives outside the forest area.

Bernard Gagnon-teak trees at Gir

Teak trees in Gir National Park. Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia.

Hit by trains, hit by cars, and, inevitably coming into conflict with people as they show up on private farms and homes, lions are dying.

Translocation is the single most important remedy for the lions’ problems according to conservationists there. It not only will allow the lions to spread out and multiply, it will create other distinct populations.

And that would be vital in keeping these animals safe from an epidemic. Today, if there were something like a distemper outbreak in the Gir Forest, it could wipe out the world’s population of wild Asiatic lions.

Ullas Karanth, the legendary conservationist and big cat expert in India, who runs the India office for the Wildlife Conservation Society, says translocation is vital.

“The key issue of translocation comes up because of the extreme urgency of having at least one separate population to insure the species against unforeseen dangers from environment, disease, war or social unrest… any of which can wipe out the single population like this.”

KUK_SettingCamera. Pic courtesy - WCS

Ullas Karanth setting up a camera trap. Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society.

He’s not alone—leading wildlife scientists there have been calling for that since the 1990s. But politics get in the way.

These rare cats are an important tourist attraction here and a point of pride for the people of Gujarat. So the local politicians have been resisting spreading this resource to other states.

Ullas Karanth says this is a “major failure of common sense in wildlife management.”

He says a lot of work has been done at a wildlife sanctuary in Central India to welcome a new population of Asiatic lions. They’ve created some good habitat, but there’s been a lot of legal wrangling. And Dr. Karanth says, “Local politics has come in the way unfortunately with the Gujarath state refusing to give even surplus lions that would die anyway, if we know anything about carnivore populations.. typically they lose 20% of their members per year.”

He says that the general public in India is unaware of the scientific necessity of a translocation.

Dr HS Singh-Asiatic lion

Handsome male Asiatic lion. Courtesy of Dr. H. S. Singh.

India’s leader, Prime Minister Narenda Modi is from lion territory—Gujarat. And when he was governor of Gujarat, his administration fought to prevent the lions being moved to sanctuaries outside his home state.

And now, the Times of India has been reporting just this week that the government—the Modi government— is considering a proposal to replace the tiger—the iconic symbol of India since the 1970s––with the lion. (Though the lion was the national animal of India in the 1950s.)

And the paper says this development has “triggered a furor among wildlife activists.”

Dr. Karanth’s says movements to do things like change the national animal, are  “empty gestures” and he’d rather see a political effort put into translocation.

But there is hope.

Dr. Karanth says, “I feel optimistic, but would feel far more so, if there were a second thriving wild lion population instead of having all our eggs in one basket as at present.”

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