Step back in time to before the last ice age and you will find that the lion once roamed widely across the planet. In fact the lion enjoyed the widest distribution of any mammal except for humans. From the South American Pampas, to the frigid north of Siberia, lions stalked the vast herds of large herbivores, including the iconic woolly mammoth. Sadly today, this species has disappeared from most of its range, largely down to the rise of man. As predators ourselves, the lion became a natural competitor, and so as our populations increased, so the lions decreased.
The lion is a proud symbol of Africa, but what many people don't realise is that there are still a few wild lions living outside of Africa. These are the Asiatic or Indian lions, which just a century ago roamed across vast swathes of the Asian continent. Today they are restricted to a tiny enclave in India, known as the Gir National Park.
Two thousand years ago, the Asiatic lion range extended right across into Southern Europe, and as far west as Greece. They were also numerous right across the Arabian Peninsula, and of course ranged widely across the Indian sub-continent. Over the proceeding centuries, successive waves of human empires rose and fell across the region, and inevitably these lions population faded away.
By the turn of the 20th Century, the Asiatic subspecies of lion was balancing on a knife edge as just two dozen lived within the confines of an area of teak forest in Northern India known as Gir.
After India’s independence in 1947, the fledgling government formalised the Nawab’s restrictions by creating special lion reserves on the Southern tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat, with the most famous being the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, officially created in 1965.
Over the years, the boundaries of the sanctuary have expanded by over 900 miles squared, incorporating vast tracts of dry, hilly forest; today it’s known as the Gir Conservation Area. The last census of Gir’s lions was conducted in 2010 and the good news was that there are currently 411 individuals roaming around Gir. The bad news is that, that number is deceptively high, as up to 150 lions are sub adults or cubs, and many of these will fail to make it to adulthood.
The Lions of Gir came very close to extinction. The evidence for this is a rather prominent ridge of loose skin along the bellies of mostly the male lions. This unusual trait only crops up occasionally in their African relatives, but is widespread in the Asiatic variety.
Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the lions experiencing a ‘population bottleneck’. This was brought about by the relentless hunting carried out by humans down the ages which reduced the lions to such low numbers that they were effectively forced to inbreed.
Over the next decade or so, two thirds of the local Maldhari were moved out of the area. The plan though was highly controversial and still sparks fury among the Maldhari today, but it was pivotal in saving the lions from almost certain extinction. The lions’ chief natural prey no longer faced competition from domestic livestock, and the land was now free of people cutting down trees for cattle fodder and firewood.
As an indication of just how much has changed, before the 1970s, Gir was home to just 6000 wild grazers, mostly chital, wild boar and a larger species of deer known as the sambar. In 2010, the number had grown to 65,000 ten times more than it had been just forty years previously. However, there are worrying signs that the human pressures that nearly condemned India’s last lions to extinction are returning. Today, 6000 people live within the National Park, exactly the same number that was present in 1970. The herders and their animals have access to virtually all of the area, apart from a core area where most of the lions live. An extra 100,000 people plus another 100,000 cattle and buffalo inhabit villages that dot the forests boundaries.
Astonishingly, despite these worrying changes, the lions have managed to expand outside of Gir and create small populations in small wooded areas, some of which are home to as many as one in four of the entire population. However, most areas of suitable habitat have now been occupied, which hinders further expansion and thus limits the lion’s chances of setting up prides in new areas.
In 1994 a delegation of experts and conservationists travelled from India to South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. The leader of the expedition was prominent Indian lion expert, Ravi Chellam. Chellam wished to observe how Phinda were successfully able to transport large and dangerous game animals. Phinda objective was simple, to recreate thriving populations by relocating lions under pressure from people into wilder, more desirable country. They aimed to re-establish lions in areas where they had disappeared decades before due to conflicts with humanity.
By the time of Chellam visit, the ingenious technique now dubbed ‘wild to wild translocation’ was so effective that lions now roamed once again over vast swathes of their former range. Ravi and his team left South Africa, inspired and with an abundance of insights into how exactly India’s lions could be saved. The task was to try and set up a new population of Asiatic lions outside of their current base at Gir.
The lion’s best and probably last hope probably lies with Gujarat’s Eastern neighbour, the state of Madhya Pradesh, which have been frantically preparing the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary to receive the lions that will save the species. The reserve lies around 500 miles away from Gir, and although it covers a smaller area, the surrounding landscape is dense forest, ten times bigger than anything at Gir.
However, India’s last lions may never get a chance to roam Kuno-Palpur, there’s nothing biologically or socio-economically that’s stopping this miracle for happening. It’s all about politics; Gujarat is fiercely proud of its lions and refuses to be parted with its ultimate status symbol. After all, the lions are a huge tourism draw, and Gujarat would not want to lose such a valuable monopoly.
Today, all of the remaining 411 lions are closely related, their survival is by no means guaranteed, because the lack of genetic diversity leaves them vulnerable to disease and consequently threatens to undermine all of the hard work that has gone into bring the species back from the very brink of oblivion.
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