A small teak forest in India’s western state of Gujarat is home to some of the last wild Asiatic lions in this world. And yes, you read that right – lions.
Not many people know about these lions and when I decided to go there to work on a personal project about endangered wildlife in India I was often asked if I wasn’t mistaken, and was thinking maybe about the better known Bengal tigers.
But, no, India does have a small population of a subspecies of lion. They are Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) and historically they ranged in a large area from Greece through Iran, and all the way to India. In fact it was the Asiatic subspecies that were used by the Romans in gladiator fights at the Coliseum in Rome – not its larger cousin the African lion.
Big cats are threatened all over the world. Loss of habitat and conflict with human inhabitants is a great problem worldwide, but nowhere is this as evident as it is in the Gir National Forest.
Here, a small population of about 411 lions including nearly 150 sub-adults (according to a 2010 census) has their last stronghold. Fortunately, the Gir Forest sanctuary is well kept by the Gujarat government and lion numbers are on the rise, but according to scientists and as described by Dr. Luke Hunter (President of Panthera) in a BBC Wildlife Article this month, the lions are outgrowing the forest and have nowhere to go. Noted lion expert Dr. Ravi Chellam has developed plans for relocation, and the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighboring Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has been made ready to receive the lions. It would seem relocation is their only hope for survival. With such a small population in a small geographical place, a disease could wipe out the entire population in a very short time. One of the lion’s main preys, other than the chital deer (axis axis), is livestock, which is troubling to local farmers and cattle-herders. Human – wildlife conflicts take place in Gujarat every day and the wildlife rarely wins.
So why have the lions not been moved yet? It seems like a simple job, and in national parks around South Africa, relocation of animals has become an everyday business. But things are unfortunately not as simple as they seem and the Asiatic lions may never roam in any other sanctuary than Gir. The state government of Gujarat refuses to give permission for any relocation, according to Hunter’s article. It all depends on whom you believe. Some voices say that it is about Gujarati pride, while others believe it is a financial concern of the state wanting to protect the tourist income that the lions bring.
Sadly, politics always plays a role in conservation. After having spent an amazing time in the vicinity of this incredible animal, I only hope that the right people will change their mind and give these lions a chance, so that we once again can see them roam freely as they should.
Based in Como, Italy, Uri Golman is an award winning nature and wildlife photographer specialized in the arctic environment. An environmentalist and adventurer by heart, he has travelled the far north on several expeditions with the ultimate goal to communicate local conservation.
He has published two books on the Arctic since 2007 and one book on local conservation in India called Tiger Spirit, which was awarded the WWF Panda Book of the Year title in 2011.
Uri has also been chosen by Canon as a local Canon Ambassador in Denmark for his work on local conservation in Greenland for three consecutive years. His images from this part of the world have been published around the world in magazines, books and on calendars and postcards. His clients include National Geographic, WWF, ALPS Magazine and Greenland Today and Nature Picture Library in London represents his photographic work.
He is often a contributor of photographic stories to specialist magazines and writes monthly stories on the Manfrotto School of Xcellence.
He is currently working on a long term project called Wild North which aims to promote knowledge about conservation under the northern hemisphere.
The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.