The Growing Success Story of the Asiatic Lion
Easily overshadowed by the African lion, the Asiatic lion once roamed the vast swaths of the Middle East and Asia. Up until the 17th century, it was found as far west as Palestine and throughout Arabia, Persia, and Northern India. However, indiscriminate hunting and killing to protect livestock led to a mass slaughter, leaving as few as ten Asiatic lions remaining by the late 1800s.
Their last refuge is western India’s Gir National Park, home to, according to a 2015 census, a little more than 500 Asiatic lions, the world’s only wild population. In comparison, about 20,000 African lions remain in the wild. The forest was originally hunting grounds for the royalty of Junagadh province. In the early 1900s, ruler Nawab Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi noticed the startling decline and declared Gir as a protected area. The first official lion census, conducted in 1936, found 150 lions. Since then, a census has been taken every five years and has shown an upward trend.
The Asiatic lion is similar to its African cousin both in appearance and behavior. However, Asiatic lions tend to slightly smaller body size. The most prominent differences are a distinctive fold of skin on the Asiatic lions’ stomachs and a reduced mane in males. Furthermore, half of the remaining population have a split infraorbital foramen, the hole under the eye socket in the skull where facial nerves pass through, likely due to inbreeding.
In 1965, the Indian government declared the Gir forest a wildlife sanctuary, which expanded from the protected area to cover peripheral forests. Today, it covers a 545 square-mile area of deciduous forest, thorn forest, and savannah. It also has become a host to a number of other large carnivores including leopards, spotted hyenas, honey badgers and golden jackals.
Without a doubt, the Asiatic lions of the Gir are a conservation success story due to the efforts of conservation groups and local communities’ dedication. In fact, their population is outgrowing their sanctuary. As much as 40% of the population now lives outside the park boundaries and are at a greater risk of death or injury due to conflict with people.
Despite the success, scientists are concerned that disease or natural disaster could easily wipe out the entire Gir population. And while there are some Asiatic lions in zoos worldwide, there are no plans to release those animals to rebuild a wild population.
To avoid such a fate, the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, an Indian government initiative, plans to capture and relocate some lions to the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary. But, the plans has met opposition by local residents who are fiercely proud of their lions.
Furthermore, the plan has become controversial. Palpur-Kuno may not be the best location for the lions due to threats as insufficient amounts of prey, poaching gangs, and potential competitors such as tigers. Even the Gujarat State Wildlife Department has also objected to moving the animals outside the state, suggesting that the lions would be better off if moved to two other parks within their state.
“There’s so few conservation success stories when it comes to carnivores,” says Gitanjali Bhattacharya, program manager at the Zoological Society of London’s South and Central Asia programs, “and the Asiatic lion, for me, it’s really a story of hope. Because you’ve got a population that’s growing, a community that’s supportive, and the lion is taking back its former range.”
Losing Giraffes for Their Tails
Documentary filmmaker David Hamlin recalls a time when he was flying over the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Garamba National Park in late June and spotted three giraffes.
“Seeing these giraffes from the air was really exciting,” says Hamlin, who was on assignment for National Geographic. “Seeing them anywhere is really exciting.”
Nine subspecies of giraffe roam the African continent. Though the species as a whole is not considered endangered, total population has decreased from around 140,000 in the 1990s to fewer than 80,000, according to recent estimates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Kordofan giraffe, which all three giraffes Hamlin found were, lives only in Central Africa. And out of the estimated 3,000 that remain, 40 of them live in the 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) of protected land.
But his exhilaration didn’t last long. Twelve hours later, rangers reported hearing gunshots and discovered three giraffe carcasses, with only the end of the tail removed, rotting in the sun. “It was horrible for me and the team,” describes Hamlin, “the crushing realization that most likely it was these guys, the ones we’d seen.”
Hamlin decided to document the aftermath of the tragedy to raise awareness about poaching in the park.
Garamba is Africa’s second oldest national park. It is managed by the nonprofit organization African Parks in association with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, a government agency. However, in recent years as civil unrest has been escalating, the national park has been hit hard by poaching. Its rhinos have been wiped out and its elephants have suffered huge losses.
Garamba’s Kordofans represent the last population in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Julian Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a Namibia-based organization, considers the situation as dire if the number drops by half. “Every single giraffe is valuable”.
Though men from South Sudan, a neighboring country, target the giraffes for their meat to feed their impoverished villagers, the Congolese usually kill for one body part: the tails.
Giraffe tails are considered as a status symbol and hold traditional significance in some communities. According to Leon Lamprecht, joint operations director for African Parks, men will hunt down these giant creatures and present “the tail as a dowry to the bride’s father if they want to ask for the hand of the bride”. The long, black hairs are often turned into fly whisks.
If any more Kordofan giraffes are killed in the park, their tiny population could risk local extinction.
Channel Islands Fox Recovery Program Success Results in Final Delisting
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced on August 11, the final delisting of three out of four subspecies of island fox native to California’s Channel Islands. It is considered to be the fastest successful recovery for any Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed mammal in the United States. The last U.S. mammal to be removed from the list in record time was the eastern Steller sea lion in 2013, after more than two decades.
In the late 1990s, the San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz Island fox populations plummeted by over 90%. At its low point, fox populations dropped from 1,780 to only 15 individuals on Santa Rosa Island, from 450 to 15 on San Miguel Island, and from 1,400 to 55 on Santa Cruz Island. The decline is primarily due to the predation by golden eagles, which filled a niche left vacated by the loss of bald eagles due to DDT pesticides, and a canine distemper outbreak on Santa Catalina Island.
By 2004, all four fox subspecies were listed as endangered, stimulating a focused, partnership-driven conservation effort involving the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, and Institute for Wildlife Studies. To restore balance to the island ecosystem, the partners reestablished bald eagles to their historic island territories, removed feral pigs, and relocated golden eagles to the mainland. The core of its recovery plan was a captive breeding and release program, which reintroduced 226 foxes to the wild. Both the captive and wild foxes were also vaccinated to prevent the spread of canine distemper. Some of these conservation efforts began several years before the listing, but became much more aggressive with federal support.
The islands’ remoteness also played a key role in the foxes’ resurgence. Its isolation allowed scientists better control over recovery efforts than if they happened on the mainland.
The Channel Islands, long inhabited by Native Americans, became home to European explorers, ranchers, farmers, and military. Human activity on the islands allowed nonnative animals such as pigs, sheep, deer, and elk to flourish. Without bald eagles filling in the predator niche, golden eagles flocked to prey on piglets and other animals like foxes.
The effort was not without controversy. Removing thousands of pigs by shooting and killing angered animal rights group. But, wildlife officials said that eliminating pigs was a necessary course of action to force golden eagles to forage elsewhere, helping the foxes to bounce back.
Almost immediately, fox populations began to improve. As of 2015, there are approximately 700 foxes on San Miguel Island, 1,200 on Santa Rosa Island, and 2,100 on Santa Cruz Island. The Santa Catalina Island population is estimated at around 1,800 foxes; but another possible outbreak of disease has meant that the subspecies was only downlisted from endangered to threatened. The San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Cruz island subspecies are considered fully recovered.
Biologists will continue to monitor foxes on the northern Channel Islands by conducting periodic health checks and tagging select foxes with radio collars.
“It’s remarkable to think that in 2004, these foxes were given a 50 percent chance of going extinct in the next decade. Yet here we are today, declaring three of the four subspecies recovered and the fourth on its way,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “That’s the power of the ESA – not just to protect rare animals and plants on paper, but to drive focused conservation that gets dramatic results. More than 300 experts, non-profit organizations, state and federal agencies came together to not only prevent the extinction of Channel Island foxes, but to fully restore them in record time. That’s something to celebrate!”
The Endangered Species Act is an essential tool for conserving the nation’s most at-risk wildlife, It has served as the critical safety net for wildlife that Congress intended when it passed the law more than 40 years ago. In addition, the ESA has helped move many species from the brink of extinction to the path to recovery, including California condors, Florida panthers and whooping cranes.
The Obama Administration has delisted more species than all other Administrations combined. Out of the 37 ESA delistings due to recovery, 19 were overseen by the Obama Administration. These include the Oregon Chub, Virginia northern flying squirrel, brown pelican, and now, three Channel Islands Fox subspecies.
“The Island Fox recovery is an incredible success story about the power of partnerships and the ability of collaborative conservation to correct course for a species on the brink of extinction,” said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “The Endangered Species Act is an effective tool to protect imperiled wildlife so future generations benefit from the same abundance and diversity of animals and plants we enjoy today. What happened in record time at Channel Islands National Park can serve as a model for partnership-driven conservation efforts across the country.”