India's last lions

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The teak forest of Gir is now the sole refuge for a big cat that hunted across swathes of Asia just a century ago. Luke Hunter considers the future of the Asiatic lion.

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India's last lions

The teak forest of Gir is now the sole refuge for a big cat that hunted across swathes of Asia just a century ago. Luke Hunter considers the future of the Asiatic lion.

Sixteen years ago I hosted a delegation from India to South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. Led by Ravi Chellam, an expert on Asiatic lions, the expedition tapped into South Africa’s extraordinary expertise in transporting big game. Phinda’s forte was recreating thriving populations of lions that had disappeared decades earlier due to conflict with people.

By the time of our visit, the technique – scientists call it ‘wild-wild translocation’ – was so polished that restoring lions to their former range in southern Africa had become virtually routine.

Ravi’s team left with a wealth of insights into the complex business of rehoming wild lions. This know-how would be critical if their assignment was to have any chance of success.

The task? To establish a new population of the famed lions of India’s Gir Forest, the only members of the species left outside Africa.

Declining numbers

We tend to forget that, though lions are probably the ultimate symbols of the African savannah, they were once just as iconic in southern Asia. 

Roughly 2,000 years ago, their range extended across much of Africa and from modern-day Greece around the southern shores of the Black Sea, through the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, and deep into north-east India. But as wave upon wave of human empires rose and fell across the region, the lions inexorably faded away.

Like most powerful, expansionist cultures, the Romans, Mughals, British and others were passionate about hunting – and large, dangerous carnivores such as lions were highly prized quarries.

By the end of the 19th century, the lions’ last North African outpost was in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and their Asian range had shrunk to a few fragments in Iran, Iraq, India and, possibly, Pakistan.

The region’s leonine subspecies (Asiatic lions are genetically distinct from, and slightly smaller than, their African counterparts) was clinging to survival by the tips of its retractable claws.

Saved by a prince

By 1900, Gir held the last viable population of Asiatic lions, just two dozen strong. The district’s ruling prince, Nawab Rasulkhanji of Junagadh, was reputedly a great marksman who had hunted leopards, but fortunately he had no desire to finish off their larger relatives. Instead, he placed strict restrictions on hunting the Gir lions, a moratorium that would save them.

After its independence in 1947, India formalised the nawab’s edicts by setting up lion reserves on the southern tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat, starting with the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in 1965. Later additions brought 1,450km2 under protection, and this tract of dry, hilly forest became known as the Gir Conservation Area.

In 2010, the lion census identified 411 individuals in Gujarat – though this tally is deceptively high: it included about 150 sub-adults and cubs, many of which will never reach breeding age.

Unique characteristics

To appreciate how close to oblivion the Gir lions came, one need only take a good look at their appearance. Most of them – males in particular – have a prominent ridge of loose skin along their bellies. A limited number of African lions share this characteristic, but its near ubiquity in Gir lions points to their genetic homogeneity.

Hunting forced the handful of animals saved by the nawab through what biologists refer to as a ‘population bottleneck’, causing inbreeding; today’s descendants are all closely related.

Size matters

Physical differences notwithstanding, Asiatic lions display much the same ecological hallmarks as African ones. Related females form the nucleus of each pride and defend stable territories from other matrilines.

Meanwhile, adult males – also usually related – establish small coalitions that co-operate to guard the females in their prides from rival groups. But, in Gir, everything is downsized.

Lion coalitions here normally comprise just two males, compared with up to nine (but usually two to four) in East and Southern Africa. Similarly, most prides in the Gir Forest have two or three lionesses, with six considered a very large number; by contrast, 4–11 lionesses is typical for East and Southern African prides, and some have as many as 20.

Gir lions of both sexes also spend much more time alone than their more gregarious African cousins.

Solitary splendour

The reason is food. As a rule, the larger their prey, the more sociable lions are likely to be. In African savannahs teeming with large herbivores such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo, the need to defend big kills was probably a key factor compelling lions to band together at an early stage in their evolution.

A lone lioness on a zebra kill in the open attracts unwanted attention, so it makes sense to team up with related females: it’s better to share with family than to have your meal stolen by unrelated lions or other scavengers.

By the same token, small prey items are less likely to be lost to competitors, simply because they can be eaten faster. Sure enough, the main food of Gir lions – the chital, or spotted deer – is among the smallest preferred lion prey anywhere (a female chital weighs on average about 50kg).

Secret munchies

A further factor that keeps the Gir lions small is the landscape itself – the rolling hills and valleys covered with a dense mosaic of teak forest and semi-arid scrub help to conceal kills from other predators.

It has been suggested, based on these observations, that lion sociality in Gir is gradually breaking down, as if these cats are somehow becoming less leonine. But in fact this behavioural shift reflects the inherent flexibility of the species’ social system.

Asiatic lions are no less successful than the great prides of buffalo hunters in Kruger National Park, or the elephant-killing lions of northern Botswana.

Conflict… and recovery

Unfortunately, there is another parallel between India’s last lions and those in Africa: the ubiquitous presence of people and their livestock. Gir lions sometimes take domesticated buffalo and cattle belonging to the local Maldhari people, leading to inevitable conflicts in which lions are rarely the winner.

In the early 1970s, a radical policy was implemented. At the time, there were about 4,800 pastoralists and 25,000 head of livestock within the boundaries of Gir. But between 1972 and 1987, two-thirds of the Maldhari families were moved out of the area.

Though hugely controversial and plagued by long-term problems, this resettlement programme was, nevertheless, pivotal in saving the Gir Forest and its lions.

Livestock compete with native herbivores for food, and this pressure is exacerbated by the local people’s need to cut down trees for cattle fodder and fuel for cooking fires.

Before the resettlement policy, Gir held only 5,600–6,400 wild grazing animals – mostly chital and other lion prey such as wild boar and the larger sambar deer. In 2010, the estimate was nearer 65,000: a spectacular ten-fold increase made possible by the recovery of the forest.

But the human pressures are fast reaching boiling point again. Today, Gir is home to 6,000 people and almost the same number of livestock as in 1970 (herders and their animals have access to most of the conservation area, apart from the National Park at its heart). Another 100,000 people, together with their 95,000 cows and buffalo, live in villages on the forest’s boundaries.

Astonishingly, despite these changes, the lions have managed to establish satellite populations in wooded areas outside Gir, which now hold one in four of the cats. Most fragments of suitable habitat have been occupied, though, leaving fewer options for new prides to establish territories.

Human frailties

This brings us back to Ravi’s 1996 mission. After years of conservation initiatives that have filled Gir to capacity, there is still only one population of wild Asiatic lions. The endangered subspecies has yet to benefit from the translocation techniques learned in South Africa.

Gujarat’s neighbour to the east, the state of Madhya Pradesh, has been readying the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary to receive surplus lions from the Gir Forest, which lies 830km away. Though the reserve covers only 347km2, it is surrounded by a forested landscape 10 times that size, and so represents probably the last realistic hope for Asiatic lions anywhere outside Gujarat.

Madhya Pradesh and the Indian government have spent millions of pounds restoring Kuno-Palpur. As in the Gir Forest, this work has involved resettling villages (a total of 24 were moved), leading to forest regeneration and booming numbers of herbivores. All that’s missing is the lions.

Asiatic ambition

Sadly, they may never roam this reserve. The obstacles are neither biological nor socio-economic – the main reasons why large carnivore translocations are typically so challenging – but political. The state government of Gujarat refuses to part with its lions.

Depending on who you believe, its motives range from fervent Gujarati pride in its enviable record of protecting Asiatic lions, to maintaining its tourism monopoly over these handsome cats.

It’s a high-stakes gamble: small, isolated populations of animals are vulnerable to catastrophes such as disease epidemics. Without doubt, Gujarat has done a remarkable job of rescuing Asiatic lions from extinction – so much so that the felines have outgrown their only home in a century.

Whether their roars will still reverberate through the teak trees of Gir in 100 years’ time remains to be seen.

 

NOW YOU DO IT

 

Getting there

  • Internal flights serve Diu and Porbandar; continue by road to the Gir Forest.

 

When to go

  • November to February is best for wildlife viewing.
     
  • Extremely hot summer (April–May) is followed by monsoon (June–September).

 

Wildlife highlights

  • Gir Forest is home to leopards, striped hyenas and small carnivores such as mongooses as well as lions.
     
  • Gir’s open grassland is home to many herbivores: chital and sambar deer, wild boar, chinkara gazelles and two species of antelope – nilgai and four-horned.
     
  • Gujarat State Lion Conservation Society has information on Gir.
     
  • Velavadar National Park, 240km north-east of Gir, is a stronghold for the rare blackbuck (below). The rut is in February.
     
  • Dhrangadhra Sanctuary, to the north, supports the endangered Asiatic wild ass.

 

Tour operators

  • Gir lions are a highlight of Naturetrek’s 13-day Gujarat tour. 

 

Click here to find out more about Panthera, a charity dedicated to big cat conservation.

Click here to see our gallery of Asiatic lions by Uri Golman