Saturday, October 1st, 2022 01:29:34

Magnificent Beast

Updated: May 29, 2010 1:27 pm

The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) or the Indian lion is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in the Gir Forest of Gujarat, India. In 2010, the Gujarat government reported that 411 Asiatic lions were sighted in the Gir forest; a rise of 52 over the last census of 2005.

            The Asiatic lion is one of the four major big cats found in India, the others being the Bengal tiger, the Indian leopard and the snow leopard. They once ranged from the Mediterranean to the north-eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent, but excessive hunting, water pollution and decline in natural prey reduced their habitat.

            Historically, Asiatic lions were classified into three kinds Bengal, Arabian and Persian lions. Asiatic lion are smaller and lighter than their African counterparts, but are equally aggressive. The colour ranges from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey. Their size corresponds to that of central African lions. They reach a weight of 160-190 kg for the males and 110-120 kg for the females. The scientific record for the longest male is of 292 cm, while the maximum height to the shoulders reported is of 107 cm.

            Asiatic lions are highly social animals, living in units called prides. Their prides are smaller than those of African lions, with an average of only two females, whereas an African pride has an average of four to six.

            Asiatic lions prey predominantly on deer (sambar & chital), antelope (nilgai), gazelle (chinkara), wild boar, water buffalo and livestock. The population in 1907 was believed to consist of only 13 lions when the Nawab of Junagadh gave them complete protection.

            Until about 150 to 200 years ago, the Bengal tiger, along with the Indian leopard, shared most of their habitat, where the Asiatic lion was found in large parts of west and central India along with the Asiatic cheetah, now locally extinct in India. However, Asiatic cheetahs preferred open grasslands, and the Asiatic lions preferred open forests interspersed with grasslands, which is also home to tigers and leopards. At one time, the Bengal tiger and Asiatic lion might have competed with each other for food and territory.

            These Indian big cats lost most of their open jungle and grassland habitat in India to the rising human population which almost completely converted their entire habitat in the plains of India into farmland. They frequently became targets of local and British colonial hunters. Lions are being poisoned for attacking livestock. Some of the other major threats include floods, fires and epidemics. Their restricted range makes them especially vulnerable. Nearly 15,000 to 20,000 open wells dug by farmers in the area for irrigation have also acted as traps, which led to many lions drowning.

            To counter act the problem, suggestions for walls around the wells, as well as, the use of “drilled tube wells” have been made. Habitat decline in the Gir Forest may also be contributed by the presence of nomadic heardsmen known as Maldharis. 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 people. Many Maldharis have been relocated outside the park by the forestry to allow the lions a more natural surrounding and more natural prey.

            It is hoped by all conservationists that the governing authorities settle their differences of opinion on the best possible plan and take some action before it’s too late to save one of the most magnificent beasts to roam the planet.

By Sachin Kaushik

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