The ‘Other’ Big Cat Asiatic Lion
“Only 1411 left” was a famous slogan. It pertains to the continuous campaigns of the Union government and some private organisations in order to protect the Bengal Tiger, our national animal. Interestingly, according to the latest tiger census report released on March 28, 2011, by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the current tiger population estimated is 1,706. The results include figures from 17 Indian states. The data indicates that the campaign has had beneficial effects for the big cats.
However, some light needs to be thrown at the Asiatic lions (Panthera Leo Persica) which thrive in the extreme western corner of the nation. In fact, these royal animals are also in danger of being wiped out. As a factual matter, the locational extent of the Asiatic lions is quite widespread. It ranges from the Mediterranean coast to Saudi Arabia, Iran and India. There are proofs of existence of lions in Bengal too. And its northernmost habitat, ever known, is the Caucasus range.
Until 1873, Asiatic lions were found all over the central and western parts of India. But, with the expanse of the British Empire, firearms posed a real threat to the royal beasts.
Lions are generally more aggressive than tigers, and would easily come out of hiding and get shot. Moreover, a lion being the symbol of bravery and might, hunting them became a prestigious sport amongst the British colonisers and local princely state rulers.
Furthermore, population also increased manifold and the forests were cut down for agricultural needs. This abruptly reduced the prey base of the beasts. Almost 15,000-20,000 open wells were dug during this time for irrigation purposes, which acted as traps for the lions. The number of lions in India started to decrease at a rapid rate. Ultimately, their last refuge was at the grasslands of Gir, but the terror of poaching and hunting existed there too. Reportedly, only 13 animals were left in the Gir forest in 1907. This forced the Nawab of Junagadh to act firm. He gave the lions complete protection and banned poaching.
In 1936, the first census showed that the count of the lions was 234. Undoubtedly, it was an extremely good improvement. However, the current census of 2010 has yielded a result of 411 lions only. According to the prey base of Gir and its area of 558 square miles, the most probable count would lie somewhere in between 340 and 370. This lends credence to the argument that the results of the 1936 census are perhaps not quite reliable. With such a meager number, the terror of extinction looms large over the entire population of the “other” big cats.
First of all, the inbreeding of the Asiatic lions is a critical factor. The present population of Asiatic Lions is obviously derived from just 13 individuals left in 1907, and thus is highly inbred. Studies have reported that the inbred population could be susceptible to diseases due to a weakened immune system, and they may also cause the sperm to be deformed, leading to infertility. Here it is worth mentioning that in earlier studies, Stephen O’Brien, a geneticist, had suggested: “If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually would look like identical twins … because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that were all left at the turn of the 20th century.”
This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases and causes 70 per cent to 80 per cent of sperms to be deformed—a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.
However, subsequent studies carried out in the recent past have suggested that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of inbreeding in recent times. A similar study was done by the Central Zoo Authority of India. They also show that the variability in immuno-types is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no abnormalities concerning the spermatozoa in the current population of Asiatic lions. But it is to be mentioned that the results of the study have been highly questioned due the use of Random Amplification of Polymorphic DNA (RAPD) techniques, which are very much unsuitable for population-genetics research.
Well, what do we interpret from this? Being bred from only about a dozen individuals, all the lions of the Gir forest share nearly the same gene pool, and, hence a single disease, to which if a single lion is accidentally exposed, may turn into an epidemic immediately and wipe out the entire population. Moreover, leaving all the animals in a single forest is highly risky because a mere forest fire can destroy them.
In 2002, Gujarat’s Forest Department banned mining within a five-kilometre radius of the Gir National Park. However, media reports claim that in January 2004, merely two years after the ban, rights to a mine were granted.
There are documents which show that, following this, the Forest Department wrote complaint letters to various agencies including collectors and the administration, demanding that the illegal mines be shut down. When no action was taken, it seems the matter reached the Chief Minister, who in December 2009 wrote to a Congress MP saying he had ordered a probe into the larger illegal mining issue, and asked the Mines and Minerals Department to look into it.
Interestingly, Times Now exhibited the copy of a letter written a few months later in February 2010 by the Mines and Minerals Department to the local police station, alleging non-cooperation from the local police officials in registering their forest officers’ complaint against the miners. This shows that the local police are willing to defy even the Gujarat government to protect the interests of the mining mafia.
There are more problems. Farmers on the periphery of the Gir forest frequently use crude and illegal electrical fences by enabling them with high voltage overhead power lines. These are usually intended to protect their crops from nilgai (blue bull) but lions and other wildlife are also killed.
Habitat decline in the Gir forest may also be contributed by the presence of nomadic herdsmen known as maldharis. These communities are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching, but with an average of 50 cattle (mainly “Gir cow”) per family, over-grazing is a concern. The habitat destruction by the cattle and the firewood requirements of the populace reduces the natural prey base and endangers the lions. The lions are in turn forced by the lack of natural prey to shift to kill cattle and in turn, are targeted by the local people. So, this becomes a vicious cycle.
There are other concerns too. Rehabilitation of these tribes is not being done with adequate care.
The central government has decided to rehabilitate some lions to the Palpur-Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, which will be an ideal habitat for these beasts. Researchers at the Wildlife Institute of India have confirmed that the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is the most promising location to re-establish a free ranging population of the Asiatic lions. The sanctuary has been certified to receive its first batch of lions from Gir, where they are highly overpopulated. Annually, there are large-scale deaths in the population of lions because of ever-increasing competition between the human and animal overcrowding.
Even though recent studies have shown that Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary is ready to receive its first posse of lions from Gir, controversy continues to shroud the project as the state government of Gujarat is reluctant to let go of them, as it considers Asiatic lions a state property and wants to keep its monopoly over the tourism revenue generated by the species—which is extinct everywhere else in the world. Hence, Gujarat sees the lions as a “tourist attraction” and a source of direct and indirect tourism-related revenue.
The matter, however, needs a speedy resolution since the future of one of the royal creatures hangs in balance.
By Rohit Aich and Uddipan Mukherjee