I was thinking of what endangered animal I could talk about today and since I have quite a few friends here from India, the animal I’m going to discuss today comes from western India’s Gir National Park. The Asiatic lion at one time roamed the entire continent of Asia and the Middle East. Today, the entire species lives in the Gir National Park where it’s protected.
When you think of where a lion comes from, your first thought is probably the zoo. Well, there are lions in the zoo but that’s not their natural habitat though it looks like it is. Your next thought is probably to think of the Lion King which means Africa. Well, you would be right except that what most people don’t realize is that there is another species of lion besides the common African lion. The scientific name for the Asiatic lion is Panthera leo persica. African lions are Panthera leo. These lions are also known as Asia Lion or Indian Lion. Asiatic lions look similar to their African cousins however they are smaller in physical size and appearance. Appearance wise, they have a very distinctive flap of skin that runs from their chest and across their stomach covering their underside. It ranges in color from a ruddy shade to a silver shade. Another striking difference is the males of the species have smaller, less fluffy manes than their African cousins so you can always see the ears of an Asiatic lion. Height wise, the male Asian lion is about the same height as a female African lioness — 3.6 feet high (110 cm).
Asian lions have prides just like African lions. Their prides are smaller though; only consisting of 2 or 3 females versus a dozen or more. They hunt in packs but they go for smaller prey such as deer, antelope, boar and chital. Sometimes the whole pride is not necessary to hunt and a female lion can take down prey alone. Mating season takes place all year round for the most part. A female lioness can bear up to 6 cubs in a litter. Baby Asian lion cubs open their eyes at 11 days old, walk at 15 days old and are running by a month old. Females become sexually mature at 4 years old and can live to be about 18 in the wild.
Like I said earlier, the entire population of Asiatic lions can only be found in the teak and deciduous forests ans savannas of the Gir National Park where they are federally protected. To date there are a little over 400 individuals and the population seems to be on the incline but the species is still listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red list. Major threats to this species include habitat fragmentation, poison, illegal poaching, inbreeding, drowning and possible bad weather. Habitat fragmentation is a little different than habitat destruction. There are 3 big temples, major roads and a railway that runs through one of the protected areas of the National Park. They attract a lot of pilgrims which could potentially increase human-animal interaction. Farmers in surrounding areas also put up electric fences or poisoned prey to capture the lions as they are a threat to livestock. Poaching still occurs unfortunately even though it’s illegal and since the population is so small, the gene pool is not very diverse. There are wells throughout the area that are not barricade properly so if a lion falls into one, they will drown. Lastly, conservationists are constantly monitoring the weather because one catastrophic wildfire or flood could wipe out the entire species to extinction.
Besides federally protecting the area, there are conservation programs in effect to bring up the population. There’s an initiative to get the 100+ wells barricaded to decrease the chance of lions falling in. There are also breeding programs across parts of India to help boost the population and diversify the genetic pool. Locals in the community are working with the government to patrol the area for poachers. They consider the lion not only the king of the jungle but a symbol of strength and power especially since it’s a religious icon in Hinduism; the goddess Durga rides a lion and the god Narasimha is half lion.
If you’re interested in donating to the cause of protecting this species as well as other endangered Indian animals, check out WWF India here.