World Lion Day celebrates all sub-species of lion, raises worldwide awareness of conservation programs, and brings attention to the threats they face everywhere. Much of the attention is on the African lion, but today we also want to celebrate and appreciate India’s Asiatic lions, and those working to protect them and their habitat.
Asiatic lions, (Panthera leo persica), are one of the seven sub-species of lions in the world. There are a little over 500 of them left.
They live in the Gir National Forest in the state of Gujarat, India, and close to nearby communities in the area. They differ from the African lion in size, (they are slightly smaller). Male manes of Asiatic lions are less full than those of their African counterpart, thus, their ears are more prominent. Males tend to not live with the females of the pride unless they are mating or have a large kill. They are listed as Endangered (very high risk of extinction in the wild) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Threats for the Asiatic Lion
With so few Astatic lions left and living in one small part of the Gir, one disease or natural disaster could reduce the population to zero. While these lions are known to only be found in the Gir, they sometimes roam into nearly human habitats. According to Wildlife Conservation Trust of India, there are debates about relocating a small number of the lions to other parts of the country to conserve and boost the lion population.
Bhushan Pandya is a wildlife photographer and conservationist who serves on the Gujarat State Board for Wildlife (SBWL). The SBWL is opposed to a scheme to reintroduce some of the Gir’s lions to a sanctuary in India’s Madhya Pradesh state, he says. “A lion translocation project has been going on at Kuno Palpur Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The SBWL and many other lion-lovers have been opposing it. There was a long legal battle fought in the Honorable Supreme Court of India. The Apex Court on 15th April, 2013, gave a sad and surprising verdict in favour of the translocation. The Wildlife Conservation Trust, Rajkot (WCT) has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Apex Court praying to reconsider the unfortunate verdict.”
Opposition to the relocation focuses on the risk of increased poaching, human-lion conflict, a poor wild prey base, and the area earmarked for relocation is a known tiger corridor.
Other threats for the Asiatic lion in general are illegal wildlife trade, speeding vehicles on roads, trains, and open wells.
But in Gujarat, the Asiatic lion is considered a symbol of Gurjarati pride, and it is celebrated for bringing tourists to the area to view and admire them.
“Almost all tourists, whether new or regular ones, from all over world come to Gir to see lions in their natural home because Gir and its surrounding areas have been the last home of this majestic species,“explains Bhushan Pandya. “However, tourism has never been the priority over lion conservation. Less than 9 percent of Gir PA is open for tourists.”
Asiatic lion conservation programs are managed through a number of agencies, including the Indian government, and Indian wildlife law enforcement. The Zoological Society of London operates training for Gir forest rangers in tracking lions, monitoring pride population, and identifying threats, using GPS devices and other pieces of electronic equipment. Conservation efforts also take place at the Sakkarbaug Zoo in Gujarat. The veterinarians there play a valuable role in rehabilitating injured lions with a view to releasing them back to the wild. Educational efforts are ongoing with local human populations to help them learn to live with the Asiatic lions in their space.
The Asiatic lions of India are an iconic species, beloved and protected in their range. Like all animals that are cherished though, there are heated debates about conservation and protection.