Animal Spotlight: Asiatic Lion

Taxonomy:

dr-hs-singh-asiatic-lion
Photo By: Dr. H. S. Singh
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Felidae
  • Genus: Panthera
  • Species: leo
  • Subspecies: persica
  • Average Lifespan: 16-18 years
  • Average Weight: 300 to 500 lbs (120 to 200 kg)
  • Average Height: 3 feet (1 meter) at the shoulders

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.

Today, only one small population of Asian lions exist in the wild. Their last refuge is western India’s Gir National Park, home to, according to a 2015 census, a little more than 500 Asiatic lions. In captivity, an additional 200 live in zoos. In comparison, about 20,000 African lions remain in the wild.

Physical Description:

As subspecies, the Asiatic and African lion have very little genetic difference between each other. Due to the genetic similarity, the Asiatic lion is remarkably similar to its African cousin.

However, Asiatic male lions tend to have a slightly smaller body size than their African counterpart. While the largest African male lion on record was nearly 11 feet long, the largest Asiatic male reached a length of only 9.5 feet. Females, for the most part, are roughly the same size in either species.

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Assiatic lions play on the edge of Gir National Park (Telegraph.co.uk)

The most prominent differences are a distinctive fold of skin on the stomachs of Asiatic lions and a reduced mane in males. An Asiatic lion’s mane is darker, sparser, and shorter than that of African 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, most likely due to inbreeding.

Diet:

Deer, antelope, and boar form most of the Asiatic lion’s diet. The chital, a 50 kg (110 lbs) spotted deer, made up the majority of its lion kills. Approximately 45% of kills were chitals.

Instead of the wildebeest and zebra that the African lion hunts, the Asiatic lion’s choice of prey need less force and power to bring down. A single lion can easily overpower a chital. This lessened the need for pride cooperation, leading to smaller prides.

It also preyed on domestic animals due to the lion’s close proximity to human settlements. There are several thousand kills occurring annually near the wildlife refuge. Though the number of kills has declined since livestock was successfully shifted out of the Gir Forest, more lions are expanding outside of the park’s boundaries into human settlement. But, resettlement and removal of domestic animals has caused a dramatic population rebound in the Asiatic lion’s natural prey.

Behavior:

Like African lions, the Asiatic lion is a social big cat, though they organize themselves in a slightly different way. The prides are typically smaller. Instead of having a male or two ruling a pride of females, the two sexes only interacted for mating, which can take place all year round. The largest recorded female coalition is a group of five. However, this may be due to the small population and habitat area that these lions reside in.

This living situation also means that Asiatic male lions do much more hunting than their African counterparts.

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Lionesses and cubs drinking from a pool topped up by forest staff, in Gir Forest National Park, Gujarat (Telegraph.co.uk)

Hunting is typically done at night. But, if vegetation is thick, hunting may also take place during the day. Similar to the strategy African lionesses employ during hunting, Asiatic lionesses use stealth to approach their prey until they can charge and pounce. Only one in about four charges are successful.

Male Asiatic lions reach sexual maturity at around five years old and female Asiatic lions reach sexual maturity earlier at around four years old. Gestation period lasts for 100 to 119 days, with lionesses giving birth from one to six cubs.

The cubs will begin eating meat at about 3 months but will continue to suckle for up to six months. They spend nine months to perfect their hunting skills and become independent once they are one years old. Cub mortality is high; up to 80% may die before reaching two years of age.

Other than this striking difference, there is little difference in behavior between the subspecies. Lions, like all cats, spend up to 20 hours per day resting or sleeping.

Conservation:

In the ancient times, Asiatic lions were widespread from the Middle East to Greece to India. In the 18th century, they were mostly found across northern India.

However, they were heavily hunted as trophy animals by princes and maharajas and by their colonial bosses from the British Empire. And by the 20th century, habitat loss and hunting had reduced these cats to a population estimated to be as low as perhaps only a dozen animals.

These lions found refuge in a 540 square mile oasis, the Gir Forest, a national park and sanctuary in the Indian state of Gujarat. Five protected areas currently exist to protect the Asiatic lion: Gir Sanctuary, Gir National Park, and Pania Sanctuary form the Gir Conservation Area, which represents their core habitat as well as Mitiyala and Girnar wildlife sanctuaries, which protect nearby areas.

eric-gaba-gujarat-map-with-gir
Gujarat map with Gir National Park. Courtesy of Eric Gaba.

However, since the first census, conservation efforts led to a successful outcome. In May 2015, the 14th Asiatic Lion Census revealed an estimated lion population at 523 individuals of 109 adult males, 201 adult females, and 213 cubs.

And, this good news means that the lions are outgrowing the territory. The Gir Forest is surrounded by the state of Gujarat’s population of about sixty million. It has been reported that 40% of the population now lives outside the forest area; many are younger ones wanting a life of their own.

Translocation will be the next step in the Asiatic lion conservation effort. It will not only allow the lions to spread out and multiple, but it will also create other distinct populations. So in the case of infectious diseases or other threats, other populations of Asiatic lions exist.

There were previous attempts in establishing other wild populations but they have failed so far. A second subpopulation in the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Uttar Pradesh appeared to be succeeding, as the population grew from three to eleven animals. But, the animals mysteriously disappeared, presumably shot or poisoned.

Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Madhya Pradesh has now been selected as the best candidate area. Communities will require resettlement to make room for the lions, but this time great care is being taken to make the process participatory and to attempt to satisfy local needs, and not engender hostility toward lion conservation.

Interesting Facts:

  • DNA analysis of both subspecies suggests that the most drastic differences might be genetic ones/
  • Though subspecies can mate and produce healthy, fertile offspring, that is not the case for lions. African and Asiatic lions were crossbred at Chhatbir Zoo near the Indian city of Chandigarh since the late 1980s to 2002. By the time the program was suspended, it had produced almost 80 sickly hybrids that could barely walk. Most fell victim to disease and isolated due to their inability to defend themselves against other lions.
  • In 2005, they became the first carnivores to be officially downgraded from critically endangered to endangered. It is considered one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world.
  • The first official lion census was conducted in 1936.
  • Villagers near Gir Forest are extremely proud of their population of Asiatic lions. So much so that they had opposed plans to translocate some lions to another wildlife refuge/
  • The Asiatic lion is one of the twelve subspecies recognized under Panthera leo

References + For More Reading

The Secret Lions Of India

Asiatic Lion Facts

Our Endangered World: Asian Lion

Difference Between Asian and Asiatic Lions

How the Asiatic Lion was Saved from Extinction Thanks to Indian Villagers

Panthera leo ssp. persica

Animal Corner: Asian Lion

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