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The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) or Persian lion or the Indian Lion is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in the Gir Forestmarker of Gujaratmarker, Indiamarker. In 2005, the Gujarat government reported that 359 Asiatic lions were sighted in the Gir forest.

The Asiatic lion is one of the three major big cats found in India, the others being the Bengal tiger and the Indian leopard. The Asiatic lions once ranged from the Mediterraneanmarker 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 – Bengalmarker, Arabian and Persianmarker lions. Asiatic lion are smaller and lighter than their African counterparts, but are equally aggressive.

Biology and behavior

Panthera leo persica, sketch by A.M Kamarov (1826)
Asiatic lions are similar to African forms, though they have less swollen tympanic bullae, shorter postorbital constriction, and usually have divided infraorbital foramen. The colour ranges from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey.

Their size corresponds to that of central African lions. In adult males, the maximum skull length is 330-340 mm, while that of females is 266-277 mm. They reach a weight of 160-190 kg. (n=4) for the males and 110-120 kg. (n=2) 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. The Captain Smee hunted a male of 268 cm long, which weight 222.3 kg, excluding the entrails. The largest known wild male, in the hunting records, was exactly 3 m (9.9 ft) in length.

Asiatic lions are highly social animals, living in units called prides. Their lion 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. The Asiatic males are less social and only associate with the pride when mating or on a large kill. It has been suggested that this may be because their prey animals are smaller than those in Africa, requiring fewer hunters to tackle them. Asiatic lions prey predominantly on deer (sambar & chital), antelope (nilgai), gazelle (chinkara), wild boar, water buffalo and livestock.


The Gir Forest National Parkmarker of western Indiamarker has about 359 lions (as of April 2006) which live in a 1,412 km² (558 square miles) sanctuary covered with scrub and open deciduous forest habitats. The population in 1907 was believed to consist of only 13 lions when the Nawab of Junagadhmarker gave them complete protection. This figure however is highly controversial because the first census of lions in the Gir that was conducted in 1936 yielded a result of 234 animals.

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.

Threats to the subspecies

Lions are 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 counteract the problem, suggestions for walls around the wells, as well as, the use of "Drilled Tube wells" have been made.

Farmers on the periphery of the Gir Forest frequently use crude and illegal electrical fences by powering them with high voltage overhead power lines. These are usually intended to protect their crops from Nilgai but lions and other wildlife are also killed.

Habitat decline in the Gir Forest may also be contributed by the presence of nomadic heardsmen 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, overgrazing 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 people. Many Maldharis have been relocated outside the park by the forestry to allow the lions a more natural surrounding and more natural prey.

Inbreeding concerns

African (above) and Asiatic (below) lions, as illustrated in Johnsons Book of Nature
The wild population of more than 300 Asiatic Lions has been said to be derived from just 13 individuals, and thus was widely thought to be highly inbred. However, this low figure, quoted from 1910, may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting; census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100. Many studies have reported that the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases due to a weakening immune system, possibly causing their sperm to be deformed, leading to infertility. In earlier studies Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist, had suggested that "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 was all left at the turn of the 20th century." This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases, and causes 70% to 80% of sperm to be deformed — a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.

A subsequent study suggested that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of inbreeding in recent times. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of Asiatic Lions. The results of the study have been questioned due the use of RAPD techniques, which are unsuitable for population genetics research.

The population figure of 13 Asiatic lions at the turn of the 20th century, is highly questionable, according to some reports and is said to have been publicized as such, to discourage hunting. Census data from that time indicates that the population was closer to 100 lions. Hunting of lions was a popular sport with the British Colonialists and Indian Royalty, and all other lions in India had been exterminated by then.

Genetic hybridization of captive Asiatic lions and African lions

Until recently, captive Asiatic Lions in Indian zoos were interbred with African Lions, which were confiscated from circuses. Once discovered, this led to the complete shutdown of the European (EEP) and the American endangered species registered breeding programs (SSP) for Asiatic Lions, as the founder animals, the Asiatic lions, originally imported from India were ascertained to be an intraspecific hybrids of African and Asian lions. Since then, India has corrected its mistake and now breeds only pure native Asiatic Lions, and in turn has helped revive the European endangered species registered breeding program (EEP) for Asiatic Lions. However, the American SSP, which completely shutdown in the early 1980s has yet to receive pure bred Asiatic Lions from India, in order to form a new founder population for breeding in zoos on the American continent.


The habitat of the Asiatic lion is very small

For over a decade, effort has been made to establish a second independent population of Asiatic Lions at the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Wildlife Institute of India researchers confirmed that the Sanctuary is the most promising location to re-establish a free-ranging population of the Asiatic lions, and has certified it as ready to receive its first batch of translocated lions from the Gir Wildlife Sanctuarymarker, where they are highly overpopulated. The Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was selected as the reintroduction site for the Asiatic lion because it is located in the former range of the lions before they were hunted into extinction in about 1873.However, the state of Gujarat has been resisting the relocation, since it would make the Gir Sanctuary lose its status as the world's only home of the Asiatic lion. Gujarat has raised a number of objections to the proposal, and the matter is now before the Indian Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Kuno officials are toying with the idea of releasing some captive-bred lions into the wild, after training them in hunting and survival techniques.

Asiatic Lions in Europe and Southwest Asia

Lions were once found in Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans. When King Xerxes of Persiamarker advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. Lions are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greecemarker around AD 80-100. The Nemean Lion from Greek Mythology is widely associated with depictions of Heraklis/Hercules in Greek Mythological art.

The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but others consider it a separate subspecies, the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).

Lions were found in the Caucasus until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Unionmarker's territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armeniamarker around the year 100 and in Azerbaijanmarker and southwest Russiamarker during the 10th century. The region was also inhabited by the Caspian Tiger and the Persian Leopard apart from Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) introduced by Armenian princes for hunting. The last tiger was shot in 1932 near Prishib village in Talis, Azerbaijan Republic. The principal reasons for the disappearance of these cats was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the wisent, elk, aurochs, tarpan, deer and other ungulates.

Lions remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-19th century when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. The last sighting of a live Asiatic Lion in Iranmarker was in 1941 (between Shirazmarker and Jahrom, Farsmarker province). In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river, Khuzestanmarker province, Iranmarker. There are no subsequent reliable reports from Iranmarker. By the late 19th century the lion had disappeared from Turkeymarker.

The Barbary Lion

In 1968, a study of the skulls of the extinct Barbary (North African), extinct Cape, Asiatic, and African lions showed the same skull characteristics - the very narrow bar - that existed in the Barbary and Asiatic lion skulls. This shows that there may have been a close relationship between the lions from Northernmost Africa and Asia. It is also believed that the South European lion that became extinct around AD 80-100, could have represented the connecting link between the North African and Asiatic lions. It is believed that Barbary lions possessed the same belly fold (hidden under their manes) that are seen in the Asian lions today. Some Barbary lions may have been bred with the North African subspecies of Asiatic lion, thus producing hybrids that are bigger or smaller than their parents.

Asiatic Lion in Culture

  • Narasimha ("man-lion") (also spelt as Narasingh, Narasinga) is described as an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism and is worshiped as "Lion God" thus Indian or Asiatic Lions which were commonly found throughout most of India in ancient times are considered sacred by all Hindus in India.

  • "Singhāsana (lit., seat of a lion)" is the traditional Sanskrit name for the throne of a Hindu kingdom in India since antiquity.

  • The island nation of Singaporemarker (Singapura) derives its name from the Malay words (lion) and (city), which in turn is from the Sanskrit and . According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatranmarker Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, on alighting the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on shore that his chief minister identified as a lion (Asiatic Lion). Recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger.

  • The Asiatic lion is the basis of the lion dances that form part of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, and of similar customs in other Asian countries.

  • Chinese guardian lions: Interestingly, the lion is not indigenous to China however Asiatic lions were quite common in neighboring Indiamarker then. These Asiatic lions found in nearby India are the ones depicted in the Chinese culture. When Buddhist priests, or possibly traders, brought stories to China about stone Asiatic / Indian lions guarding the entry to Indian Buddhist temples, Chinese sculptors modeled statues after native dogs for use outside their temples as nobody in China had ever seen a real lion before. The mythic version of the animal, was known as the Lion of Fo, the word Fo 佛 being Chinese for Buddha. The Mandarin pronunciation of the word for lion is "Shi" derives from the Cantonese "Si" which is a shortened form adopted from their Sanskrit name "Sinh" in the neighboring India. The Buddhist version of the Lion was originally introduced to Han China as the protector of dharma and these lions have been found in religious art as early as 208 BC. Gradually they were incorporated as guardians of the Chinese Imperial dharm. Lions seemed appropriate regal beasts to guard the emperor's gates and have been used as such since.

  • The Asiatic Lion appears in the 2010 remake of the 1925 The Lost World.

See also


Cited references

Other references

  • Database entry includes justification for why this subspecies is critically endangered
  • Kaushik, H. 2005. Wire fences death traps for big cats. Times of India, Thursday, October 27, 2005.
  • Chellam, Ravi, and A. J. T. Johnsingh. "Management of Asiatic Lions in the Gir Forest, India" Symp. Zool. Soc. Lond. (1993), No. 65, 409-424.

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