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Episode 339: Asiatic Lions Surviving

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The rare Asiatic Lion (image from www.zoopraha.cz)

The word lion may conjure up images of a majestic pride on the plains of the Serengeti, but lesser known are the Asiatic lions, who have a fascinating history and conservation story. They are morphologically quite distinct from their African relatives, with a more sloping skull and elongated snout, tawny fur with sparser manes, and a distinctive belly fold. You may not have realised, but you will most likely have seen Asiatic Lions in the flesh, as they are more common in captivity than African Lions.

The Asiatic Lion has a slimmer physique than the African lion, as can be seen here. They also have smaller manes and a differently shaped skull. (image from pictures-of-cats.org)

Once wide ranging, with many references to lions across countless ancient empires,  today the Asiatic Lion is only found in the wild in one small location, the Gir Forest in the Gir-Saurashtra region of the state of Gujarat in Western India. How did this once common big cat find itself so reduced?

From Africa to India to almost extinction: The History of the Gir Lions

Studies of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA revealed that all lions can be traced back to a single African origin, with a species of sub-Saharan African lion forming the base of the phylogenetic tree from which all modern lions evolved. A study of genetic markers in captive and wild lions found four lion lineages emerged out of Africa; central and north Africa to Asia, out of Kenya, one from Southern Africa and one from Southern and East Africa. Around 118,000 years ago, the first wave of lion expansions began from East to West Africa, then a second wave from South to East Africa, where they spread through Northern Africa, through Turkey and on into Northern India and Southern Europe via the Arabian peninsula. Fossil records indicate that there were once lions in Sri Lanka, but it is likely that climate and hunting were behind their localised extinction here. Neolithic caves in India display ancient paintings of lions, and the Asiatic lion has become incredibly culturally significant. Their images have been found on pottery, they have played important roles in Buddhist texts and Hindu lore as the ‘vahana’ or the carrier of the Goddess Durga.

The lion pillar of Saranth, erected by the Mauryan emperor in the 2nd century CE. to honor India and the Buddhist religion.

Until the mid-1800s, Asiatic lions, which became their own subspecies that split away from African lions around 100,000 years ago, could be found throughout Anatolia, Syria, across the Middle East to Eastern India. By the late 1800s, they had been extirpated from most of their range through extensive hunting and habitat loss. To make things worse for the struggling species, in the early 1900s they were hit by a severe famine that decimated their numbers even further, until they were down to one single free ranging population in Gir National Forest.

The current and historical range of the Asiatic lion

Even today, despite improving attitudes towards large carnivores, the Asiatic lion still faces poaching threats, despite the fact that the practice is strictly prohibited in India. Many suspect large, organised wildlife crime gangs are behind this illegal poaching after they decimated tiger populations and moved onto Asiatic Lions instead. As with so many big cats, habitat loss and degradation are major concerns. Although the Gir Forest is well protected, three major roads and an important railway track run through the forest and despite being fenced off, this still causes disturbance to the lion’s habitat and even on occasion, fatalities from collisions when lions get through the fence. Along with these major transport links, there are three big temples that are an incredibly important part of holy pilgrimages. Although most people travelling to these sites are very respectful of local wildlife, the influx of such large numbers of people at certain times of year can’t help but disturb the prides that live in the region.

The lions of the Gir Forest National Park (image from www.girnationalpark.in)

As with many large carnivores, human wildlife conflict remains a significant issue. Approximately 200 lions exist outside of the protected areas, increasing their chances of having an unpleasant run in with humans. Although in some places farmers will welcome the lions as they keep populations of feral pigs and other nuisance animals down, they still will kill livestock from time to time, and have even been known to attack and even kill humans.

When investigating the evolutionary history of the Asiatic lion, researchers found that they are far less genetically diverse than their African relatives. This is due to something called the founder effect: when a population of animals stems from a very small number of individuals, leading to low genetic diversity in the population.

Having one single population concentrated in one place is incredibly risky. One catastrophic weather event or serious disease outbreak could wipe the species out in the wild. In the ‘90s, an outbreak of canine distemper virus killed 33% of the lions in the Serengeti; this same event in Gir National Forest could be completely devastating. Given that Asiatic Lions are existing in limited space and often interact with feral dogs, the risk of a disease burning through the population is too high for comfort.

To tackle this, the Indian government and wildlife departments are trying to move a number of lions out of Gir Forest to start new populations elsewhere in India, but this is proving controversial. The locals have been heavily invested in the lions and their protection, and it is in no small part thanks to them that the population is thriving as it is. If a number of lions were to be moved, the Gujarat locals to Gir Forest feel that they would lose their prestige and pride in being the only place in the world with wild Asiatic lions. How this problem will be tackled moving forwards remains to be seen.

Conservation optimism

The Gir Lions are a pretty incredible story of conservation success. In the 1950’s scientists realised the serious plight of the Asiatic Lion and petitioned the Indian government to intervene. Alongside global captive breeding programmes, the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project was started in the 1990’s after several less than successful attempts to ensure the future of the species.

The WWF have a specialised project entirely revolving around the conservation of the Asiatic lion, from interventions as simple as covering wells in the Gir Forest to prevent accidental drownings to finding the best way to deal with human-wildlife conflict. Check out more about their amazing work at: Asiatic lion | WWF India

Wildlife charities and zoos also support the captive breeding programme for the Asiatic lions, after a bad start in the 70s’. Initially, Asiatic lions were commonly bred with African lions, until a better understanding of genetics brought awareness that this would eventually breed out the Asiatic lion with the stronger genes of the African species. With the help of geneticists, several pure-bred Asiatic lions were identified and a studbook developed for zoos to use. In 1983, a species survival plan was developed. The breeding programmes are still ongoing today in several major zoos.

Lion cubs born as part of the breeding programme at Paignton zoo in Devon, UK (image from BBC news)

Today 545 square miles have been put aside in Saurashtra’s Gir Forest have been set aside for the conservation of the Asiatic Lion. In the park and the surrounding areas, little to no human activity is allowed and in the past communities have even been moved out of the region to make space for the lions, with incredible engagement on the part of the locals. The state of Gujarat is so proud of its lions it even has a seal depicting three lions above their name, and there is a unit of rangers dedicated solely to the management of the lion population. Cultural attitudes in the region are incredibly supportive of the lions. For instance, local tribes are given access to the vital resources in the forest but accept that their livestock will be at increased risk of lion depredation, a trade off they are willing to accept that benefits both them and the lions. Although lions are still killing livestock, over time as wild ungulate numbers increase, it appears that the lions have more natural prey and will avoid attacking livestock as often. In addition, in many areas the Indian government offers compensation schemes for those farmers who unfortunately suffer livestock loss. If a problem lion repeatedly attacks a farmers’ animals, the wildlife department will dart and move the lion where they can.

The safari ride that allows lion loving tourists to see the famous Gir Lions (image from www.tripadvisor.com)

For many locals, there are enough economic benefits from these lions to engage them in protecting them. There is plenty of eco-tourism and employment around tourists coming to view these rare lions. In recent years, two semi-wild safari parks have been developed to allow tourists an almost guarantee to see lions on their trip. For those businesses that want to develop new endeavours in the area, there are strong eco-tourism policies from the government, such as a hefty development fee on businesses that want to convert land earmarked for conservation. For those businesses that engage with conservation, the wildlife department will offer support for locals, including repairing damaged village roads, supporting self-employment with grants, and developing better infrastructure for water, education, and sanitation to name just a few. For those people who assist with conservation activities, like covering wells or fencing off roads, they are a paid a small fee from the government and gain huge social prestige for getting involved in protecting the natural beauty India is so proud of. There are also initiatives to get people involved from a young age, with local governments and wildlife departments running nature camps to engage the youngest to protect their environment, preserving a future for their lions and all the habitat they live in.

Awesome videos!


Antunes, A. Troyer, J.L. Roelke, M. Pecon-Slattery, M.E. Packer, C. Winterbach, C. Winterbach, H. and Johnson, W.E. (2008) ‘The evolutionary dynamics of the Lion Panthera leo revealed by host and viral population genomics.’ PLOS Genetics

Barnett, R. Yamaguchi, N. Barnes, I. and Cooper, A. (2006) ‘The origin, current diversity and future conservation of the modern lion.’ Proc R Soc B

Jhala, Y.V. Banerjee, K. Chakrabarti, S. Basu, P. Singh, K. Dave, C. and Gogoi, K. (2019) ‘Asiatic lion: ecology, economics, and politics of conservation.’ Frontiers

Meena, V. (2016) ‘Wildlife and human impacts in the Gir landscape.’ Human Conflict in Agro-pastoral context: issues and politics

O’Brien, S.J. Martenson, J.S. Packer, C. Herbst, L. de Vos, V. Joslin, P. Ott-Joslin, J. Wildt, D.E. and Bush, M. (1987) ‘Biochemical genetic variation in geographic isolates of African and Asiatic lions.’ National Geographic Research

Singh, H.S and Gibson, L. (2011) ‘A conservation success story in the otherwise dire megafauna extinction crisis: the Asiatic lion of Gir forest.’ Biological Conservation


June 21, 2023
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