At the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, 130 lion cubs have set a record. They’ve clocked the park as having the highest number of Asiatic Lions in the world since 1936 – a total population of 650.
The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) has had a hard few centuries. Since the advent of firearms, they were hunted mercilessly along with their African cousins. Maharajas and Europeans decimated their numbers – over one hundred lions are said to have been slain by Maharao Raja Bishan Singh of Bundi, Andrew Fraser is said to have killed over 84 lions, George Acland Smith is said to have shot over 50 lions in 1857-58.
By 1907, only 13 remained on the subcontinent. The low figure is contested, suspected to have been a publicized shocker to the effect of discouraging hunting – contrasting figures from the time suggest that around 70-100 were in existence.
The province of Junagadh was one such lion stronghold administered by the Nawab of Junagadh. Once a haven of bandits, it became a wildland where the Nawab took his European friends to hunt. But as rumours of the big cat’s extinction grow louder, he banned hunting briefly in 1901. A period followed where the lions mauled several animals and humans – and so hunting was restored in 1904.
When the Nawab passed away, his son took charge. Too young to handle lions, he was sent to Britain to study – and Junagadh was kept under the charge of a British administrator. In 1913, word reached him that there were only seven lions left – and hunting was banned for good.
The continuous slaughter seems to have had an effect. M.A. Wynter-Blyth wrote in 1950 that “during these years that the habits of the lions underwent a profound change, for never again are they heard of as a menace to human life.” This was pretty much the case until 1986 – by which point the lion population had risen to around 250.
In 1965, the Gir National Park was set up in a rugged, semi-arid region 1412 kilometres in size – perfect for the big cats to stretch their legs in. The park came at a cost – the Maldhari nomadic tribes, already displaced from the non-stop development in neighbouring Kathiawar, were ‘forcibly resettled‘ from the forest in 1972. With nowhere to go, they set up around the peripheries of the forest, tending livestock – at constant threat from the lion attack.
The lion was considered to be an icon of royalty, present in mythology and folklore of India since the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Hindu Mythology also includes the lion prominently, as Narasimha – a man-lion avatar of Vishnu. Lions were revered during the Mughal era – the flag of the Mughal Empire featured a lion. India’s national emblem, adopted from Ashoka’s edict, features lions prominently.
Yet, identifying the lion as Indian is contested. Romila Thapar has argued in “Exotic Aliens: The Lion and Cheetah in India” that two of India’s iconic big cats may have been introduced to India by European settlers such as those of Alexander the Great. It’s a debate yet to be resolved, but one with much more to be said.
Animals do not seek to have nationalities. The scientific name of the Asiatic Lion points to Persian ‘ownership’ if any. But the lion, as do most large cats, has its roots in Africa. Only recently clubbed under the sub species, P.I. Leo, they hail from the Barbary Lions of North Africa – the same lions the Romans made to fight to in their colosseums. Studies have shown that many lions share a common African ancestor, from whom they diverged around the late Pleistocene (between 11-126,000 years ago). Even earlier ancestors of the lion are the cave lion – believed to have been one of the largest big cats ever. The cave lion spread across Africa, Asia and the furthest reaches of Siberia (where fossils of some cubs have been found).
There was a concerted effort from the government to save Gir’s lions. Over the years, Gir grew into one of the most successful national parks in India. By the 2000s, over 100,000 people lived on its borders – though human casualties were low compared to livestock ones. The problem that faced administrators was where to put all these lions.
As they grew in number, they tried to venture further and further away from each other. The logical move would be to shift them to other national parks – giving rise to the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project. But while states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have expressed interest, Gujarat has been vehemently against its lions leaving the state borders. For the Gujarati people, their conservation story contributes to a sense of pride – and the poor record of states like MP and UP don’t make for high hopes.
In contrast, Gujarat has kept a tight grip on its lion’s security – aided largely by a supportive population. Retaliatory killings of the lions are rare and there’s even an aspect of community vigilantism in protecting the cats from poachers.
But as the issue dragged on, it’s increasingly looking like the lions will be moved. In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat state government to stop stalling shifting the lions. But two and half years of further stalling ensued.
The Asiatic Lions currently thrive in their last home on earth in Gir. As a conservation success story – of the enforcement of laws, cohabitation with human beings and sense of community-protection – it provides many lessons for conserving other endangered species.
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