Asiatic Lion suffers from genetic threat at Gir

Gir forest of Gujrat state in India is the last home for the Asiatic Lion, Panthera leo persika, which is considered the major threat for the specie! 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 with many lions drowning. 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! The biggest threat faced by the Gir Forest is the presence of Maldharis. These communities are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching because they are basically pasturalists, with an average of 50 cattle (mainly "Gir Cow") per family. The areas around Maldhari settlements, nesses, are overgrazed. This 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 killing cattle and are in turn targeted by the people.

About 10,000 years ago the lion apparently occurred in most of Africa, in all of Eurasia except probably the southeastern forests, throughout North America, and at least in northern South America. The lion is thought to have disappeared from most of Europe because of the development there of dense forests. It probably vanished from the Western Hemisphere when many of the large mammals on which it preyed were exterminated through the spread of advanced human hunters at the close of the Pleistocene. It was eliminated in the Balkan Peninsula, its last major stronghold in Europe, about 2,000 years ago, and in Palestine at the time of the Crusades.The continued decline of P. leo in modern times has resulted primarily from the expansion of human activity and domestic livestock and the consequent persecution of the lion as a predator. A few lions became regular man-eaters -for example, a pair killed 124 people in Uganda in 1925 and thus gave a sinister reputation to the entire species. Hunting for sport was also a major factor in some areas. For example, one person killed over 300 lions in India in the mid-nineteenth century. At that time P. leo was still common from Asia Minor to central India and in northern Africa. By about 1940 the species had been eliminated throughout these regions except in the Gir Forest, Gujarat State, western India; the animals there have been under continuous pressure from livestock interests, but vigorous conservation efforts have been made, and the number of lions seems to have stabilized at around 400. There also are 200 in captivity. The subspecies involved, P. leo persica, is classified as endangered by the IUCN and the USDI and is on appendix 1 of the CITES. The Gir National Park of western India has about 411lions (as of April 2010) which live in a 1,412 km² sanctuary covered with scrub and open deciduous forest habitats. The population in 1907 consisted of only 13 lions and the Nawab of Junagarh gave them complete protection. The Bengal tiger, which is the other large cat on the Indian subcontinent, is no longer found in the area occupied by the Lion, seeing as it prefers dense forests to the open plains favored by lions.

The Asiatic Lion is a subspecies of the lion (Panthera leo) which survives today only in India. Untill about few hundreds years ago, since time immortal, 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 extirpated from India. However, Asiatic cheetahs preferred open grasslands and Asiatic lions preferred open forests interspersed with grasslands, which is also home to tigers and leopard. At one time, the Bengal tigers and Asiatic lion might have competed with each other for food and territory mainly in the central India and partly in the northern India. Though according to many sources Asiatic lions were wellspreaded throughout northern part and even Orissa during 1832 but due to several reasons they are now only restricted to Gir forest of Gujrat. For over a decade, effort has been made to establish a second independent population of Asiatic lions by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEf), Government of India (GoI) .Two reasons are there;

  • 1. As these lions are strictly restricted to Gir, a single environmental disaster may cause complete extinction of the entire Asiatic lion population.Govt of India had given the responsibility to WII to find out a second home for Asiatic lion. MoEf had given the responsibility to WII to find out a second home for Asiatic lion.
  • 2. As they are only restricted to gir any kind of genetical modification is not possible between them as a consequence only pure line breed is maintained so any sudden or gradual change in environment may become a great threat for their existence.

Wildlife Institute of India(WII) confirmed that the palpur-kuno wildlife sanctuary in Madhyapradesh is the most suitable habitat to reestablish a free-ranging population of the Asiatic lion and has certified it as ready to receive its first batch of translocated lions from Gir. But this proposal has faced two problems, one is related to the reestablishment of a tribal community, sahoriya, people which is the original habitant of this region and they are completely dependent on this forest and its adjacent area for their survival. And the 2nd now more savoir problem is that Gujrat Government 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. Gujrat has raised a number of objections to the proposal, and has been turned down before the Supreme court.

According to Indian mythology, the idol Devi Durga who is daughter of Himalaya (that’s why she is also known as Parvati) has its riding animal, lion, at its lower right side near her right leg and the demon, Mahisasur, near her left leg. Probably presence of lion at right side symbolized the migratory path of lion to India through south western part of Himalaya, where fight between Durga and mahisasur symbolized Aryan non Aryan conflict, where Durga was the representative of Aryan and mahisasur was the representative of non-Aryan people of India. The riding animal of Shiva-Durga is lion on the other hand the riding animal of bishnu-durga is tiger, which proves the co existence of lion and tiger in India (SG,2006).

According to Indian mythology, the idol Devi Durga who is daughter of Himalaya (that’s why she is also known as Parvati) has its riding animal, lion, at its lower right side near her right leg and the demon, Mahisasur, near her left leg. Probably presence of lion at right side symbolized the migratory path of lion to India through south western part of Himalaya, where fight between Durga and mahisasur symbolized Aryan non Aryan conflict, where Durga was the representative of Aryan and mahisasur was the representative of non-Aryan people of India. The riding animal of Shiva-Durga is lion on the other hand the riding animal of bishnu-durga is tiger, which proves the co existence of lion and tiger in India (SG,2006).

However, India is the historic range of Asiatic lion of the persica subspecies is believed to be extended from northern India to the East through modern Iran, south throughout the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula, and west towards from modern Greece and Italy. Indeed, multiple fossil localities of the related subspecies Panthera leo spelaea have been discovered throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Siberia, Alaska and much of Europe going as far north as Scotland.

The most authentic information about lion was given by Gajisberg (1961). According to him during middle of 10thcentury lion was available in Balkan region which is adjacent to ‘Black Sea’, this area included Romania, Yuslovakia, Greece, Bulgeria etc. In 480bc a European emperor attacked Masidonia, and a number of his camels were killed by lions. According to Hepmer and Sladisk (1972) at least up to 10th century lions were found in soviet Russia, Turkey, and Jorgia. Due to change in environmental condition and reduction of food source and increasing of evergreen forest gradually these regions became unsuitable for lions. But in Kazakhstan adjacent region of Russia lions were available even at the last part of 12th century. Their existence was found in Morocco in the last part of 18th century. According to some travelers lions were present at the higher mountain region of Morocco during 1940s. In Banta the last news of lion hunting was get during 1893 where similar news was get from Tunisia in 1891. According to Wuts (1990) lions are common in Turkey during 1870s. Sir Alfred Page informed the existence of lion in Syria in 1891. So there is not any doubt that African lions are the ancestor of Asiatic lions. They came from northern part of Africa and gradually spreaded to the adjacent part of Asia. From there they migrated to the south-eastern part of Asia. From the information of Hut (1959) the news of lion hunting in Iraq during 1918. In 1942 at the time of establishment of rail line at Dijbul of Iran an American engineer had seen a lion pair. Its little surprising that any trace or prove of lion had not found in Afganisthan, Baluchisthan or middle and eastern part of Iran, but in 1810s news of lion hunting was get from Pakistan. Lion was last seen at Koyata in 1935.

Physically, the male lion head and body length is 1,700-2,500 mm, tail length is 900-1,050 mm, shoulder height is about 1,230 mm, and weight is 160-190 kg. In females head and body length is 1,400-1,750 mm, tail length is 700-1,000 mm, shoulder height is about 1,070 mm, and weight is 110-120 kg. The coloration varies widely, from light buff and silvery gray to yellowish red and dark ochraceous brown. The under parts and insides of the limbs are paler, and the tuft at the end of the tail is black. The male's mane, which apparently serves to protect the neck in intraspecific fighting, is usually yellow, brown or reddish brown in younger animals but tends to darken with age and may be entirely black.

The lion preferred habitats are grassy plains, savannahs, open woodlands, and scrub country. It sometimes enters semideserts and forests and has been recorded in mountains at elevations of up to 5,000 meters. Asiatic lions are highly social animals, living in units called 'prides'. Asiatic 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 Asian 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. It normally walks at about 4 km/hr and can run for a short distance at 50-60 km/hr. leaps of up to 12 meters have been reported. The lion readily enters trees by jumping but is not an adept climber. Senses of sight, hearing, and smell are all thought to be excellent. Activity may occur at any hour but is mainly nocturnal and crepuscular; in places where the lion is protected from human harassment it is commonly seen by day. The average period of inactivity is about 20-21 hours per day.

The lion usually hunts by a slow stalk, alternately creeping and freezing, utilizing every available bit of cover; it then makes a final rush and leaps upon the objective. If the intended victim cannot be caught in a chase of 50-100 meters, the lion usually tires and gives up, but pursuits of up to 500 meters have been observed. Small prey may be dispatched by a swipe of the paw; a large animal it seizes by the throat and strangles, or it suffocates them by clamping its jaws over the mouth and nostrils. Two lions sometimes approach prey from opposite directions; if one misses, the other tries to capture the victim as it flees by. An entire pride may fan out and then close in on the quarry from all sides. Groups have about twice the chance of lone individuals in capturing prey. Most hunts fail: of 61 stalks, only 10 were successful. The lion eats anything it can catch and kill, but it depends mostly on animals weighing 50-300 kg. Important prey species are sambar, chital, antelope (nilgai), chinkara, wild boar, waterbuffaloand livestock. Carrion is readily taken. Up to 40 kg of meat can be consumed by an adult male at one meal. After making a kill, a lion may rest in the vicinity of the carcass for several days. About 10-20 large animals are killed per lion each year. The basis of a resident pride is a group of related females and their young. These associations may persist for many years, being generally closed to strange females. Daughters of group members are recruited into the pride, but young males depart as they approach maturity. Several adult males often come together. Such a group, or a single male, joins a pride of females and young for an indefinite period. The males cooperatively defend the pride against the approach of outside males. Some males associate with and defend several prides. Eventually, usually within three years, the pride males are driven off by another group of males. The factor stimulating departure of subadult males from a pride is the arrival of a new group of adult males and that some subadult females also may depart at such time if they are not yet ready to mate. Prides often are divided into widely scattered smaller groups with about 4 individuals each. There was a rank order among the females, and a female led each group, even when the male was present, but the male was dominant with respect to access to food. Males living within a pride allow the females to do almost all of the hunting, but they arrive subsequent to a kill and sometimes drive the others away. Lions appear to behave asocially at a kill, there being much quarreling and snapping and little tolerance shown to subordinates and cubs. The lion has at least nine distinct vocalizations, including a series of grunts that apparently serve to maintain contact as a pride moves about. The roar, which can be heard by people up to 9 km away, is usually given shortly after sundown for about an hour, and then again following a kill and after eating. It apparently has a territorial function. The lion also proclaims its territory by scent marking through urination, defecation, and rubbing its head in a bush.

Lion's breeding occurs throughout the year in India and in Africa south of the Sahara. In any one pride, however, females tend to give birth at about the same time. Females are polyestrous, and heat lasts about 4 days. A female normally gives birth every 18-26 months, but if an entire litter is lost, she may mate again within a few days. The gestation period is 100-119 days, and litters contain one to six young, usually three or four. The newborn weight about 1,300 grams each; their eyes may be open at birth or may take up to 2 weeks to open. Cubs follow their mother after 3 months, suckle from any lactating female in the pride, and usually are weaned by 6-7 months. They begin to participate in kills at about 11 months, are fully dependent on the adults for food until 16 months, and probably are not capable of surviving on their own until at least 30 months. Sexual maturity is attained at around 3-4 years, but growth continues to about the age of 6 years. The average longevity in zoos is about 13 years, but some captives have lived nearly 30 years. With the exception of people, their domestic animals, and their commensals, the lion attained the greatest geographical distribution of any terrestrial mammal. Various populations, known from fossils by such names as Panthera atrox and P. spelaea, are now regarded as conspecific with P. leo.

In long back, Indian conservationist Samikg expressed his worry in a dual mean that "if lion appears extinct from the earth then who will control the the forest demons i.e. big Water Bufallos or Bisons?" The Supreme court may reconsider their second home proposal at Kuno-Palpur.

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