Asiatic lion

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Asiatic lion
Adult Asiatic Lion.jpg
Male in Gir Forest
Asiatic Lioness in Gir Forest.jpg
Female in Gir Forest
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Subspecies: P. l. persica
Trinomial name
Panthera leo persica
Meyer, 1826
Map Guj Nat Parks Sanctuary.png
Current distribution of the Asiatic lion in the wild
Synonyms

P. l. asiaticus, P. l. bengalensis, P. l. indica, P. l. goojratensis[2]

The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), also known as the Indian lion and the Persian lion,[3] is a lion subspecies that exists as a single population in India's Gujarat State. It is listed as Endangered by IUCN due its small population size.[1] The lion population has steadily increased in Gir Forest National Park, more than doubling from a low of 180 individuals in 1974 to a level of 411 individuals consisting of 97 adult males, 162 adult females, 75 sub-adults, and 77 cubs as of April 2010.[4]

The Asiatic lion was first described by the Austrian zoologist Johann N. Meyer under the trinomen Felis leo persicus.[5] It is one of the five big cats found in India, apart from Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard.[6] It formerly occurred in Persia, Mesopotamia, Baluchistan, from Sind in the west to Bengal in the east, and from Rampur and Rohilkund in the north to Nerbudda in the south. It differs from the African lion by less inflated auditory bullae, a larger tail tuft and a less developed mane.[7]

Characteristics[edit]

Adult male at Gir Forest
Subadult male

The most striking morphological character, which is always seen in Asiatic lions, and rarely in African lions, is a longitudinal fold of skin running along its belly.[8] Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than African lions. Adult males weigh 160 to 190 kg (350 to 420 lb), while females weigh 110 to 120 kg (240 to 260 lb).[9] The height at the shoulders is about 3.5 ft (110 cm).[10] The record total length of a male Asiatic lion is 2.92 m (115 in) including the tail.[11]

The fur ranges in colour from ruddy-tawny, heavily speckled with black, to sandy or buffish-grey, sometimes with a silvery sheen in certain lights. Males have only moderate mane growth at the top of the head, so that their ears are always visible. The mane is scanty on the cheeks and throat with where it is only 4 in (10 cm) long. About half of Asiatic lion skulls from the Gir forest have divided infraorbital foramina, whereas in African lions, there is only one foramen on either side. The sagittal crest is more strongly developed, and the post-orbital area is shorter than in African lion. Skull length in adult males ranges from 330 to 340 mm (13 to 13 in), and in females from 292 to 302 mm (11.5 to 11.9 in).[7]

Compared to African lion populations, the Asiatic lion revealed a diminished amount of biochemical genetic variation, which may result from a founder effect in the recent history of the remnant population in the Gir Forest.[12]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Asiatic lion in the Gir forest

The Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Gujarat is the only habitat for the Asiatic lion where an area of 1,412.1 km2 (545.2 sq mi) was declared as a sanctuary for their conservation in 1965. Later, a national park covering an area of 258.71 km2 (99.89 sq mi) was established where no human activity is allowed. In the surrounding sanctuary only Maldharis have the right to graze their livestock.[13]

The population recovered from the brink of extinction to 411 individuals in 2010. They occupy remnant forest habitats in the two hill systems of Gir and Girnar that comprise Gujarat’s largest tracts of dry deciduous forest, thorny forest and savanna and provide valuable habitat for a diverse flora and fauna. Five protected areas currently exist to protect the Asiatic lion: Gir Sanctuary, Gir National Park, Pania Sanctuary, Mitiyala Sanctuary, and Girnar Sanctuary. The first three protected areas form the Gir Conservation Area, a 1,452 km2 (561 sq mi) forest block that represents the core habitat of the Asiatic lion. The other two sanctuaries, Mitiyala and Girnar, protect satellite areas within dispersal distance of the Gir Conservation Area. An additional sanctuary is being established in the nearby Barda forest to serve as an alternative home for Gir lions.[4] The drier eastern part is vegetated with acacia thorn savanna and receives about 650 mm (26 in) annual rainfall; rainfall in the west is higher at about 1,000 mm (39 in) a year.[9]

As of 2010, approximately 105 lions, comprising 35 males, 35 females, 19 subadults, and 16 cubs existed outside the Gir forest, representing a full quarter of the entire lion population. The increase in satellite lion populations may represent the saturation of the lion population in the Gir forest and subsequent dispersal by sub-adults compelled to search for new territories outside their natal pride. Over the past two decades, these satellite areas became established, self-sustaining populations as evidenced by the presence of cubs since 1995.[4]

Former range[edit]

Panthera leo persica. Sketch by A. M. Komarov[14]

The Asiatic lions used to live in West, Southwest, South and Central regions of Asia in historic times. Now the population of the lions currently exists in West India's Gir Forest National Park.

The type specimen of the Asiatic lion was first described from Persia in 1826, followed by descriptions of specimens from Hariana and Basra. Asiatic lions formerly occurred in Iran, Arabia, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Baluchistan.[7] They survived in regions adjoining Mesopotamia and Syria until the middle of the 19th century, and were still sighted in the upper reaches of the Euphrates River in the early 1870s. They were widespread in Iran, but in the 1870s were sighted only on the western slopes of the Zagros Mountains and in the forest regions south of Shiraz.[14]

The advent of firearms led to their extinction over large areas. By the late 19th century, Asiatic lions had been eradicated in Turkey. One of the last sighting of a lion in Iran was in 1941 between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars Province. In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river in Iran's Khuzestan Province.[15] Lions served as the national emblem of Iran and appeared on the country's flag at the time. In 1963, the last pride of five Persian lions was hunted in the Dasht-i Arzhan of Fars Province in Iran, and the national newspapers and media "celebrated" the killing of these lions with pictures and fanfare. The diminished pride consisted of a female with four cubs that inhabited a cave. The male had been already shot. The female was shot on the spot, and the cubs were taken as trophies. No subsequent sightings have been reported from Iran.[16]

In India, Asiatic lions once ranged to the state of Bengal, but declined under heavy hunting pressure.[7] In the early 19th century, they were found in north-western and central India in Haryana, Khandesh (in modern-day Maharashtra), Rajasthan, Sind, and eastward as far as Palamu and Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.[17] Severe hunting by Indian royalties and colonial personnel led to a steady and marked decline of lion numbers in the country.[13] Asiatic lions were exterminated in Palamau by 1814, in Baroda, Haryana and Ahmedabad in the 1830s, in Kot Diji and Damoh in the 1840s. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a British officer shot 300 lions. The last lions of Gwalior and Rewah were shot in the 1860s. Until 1880, no lion survived in Guna, Deesa and Palanpur, and only about a dozen lions were left in the Junagadh district. By the turn of the century, they were confined to the Gir Forest and protected by the Nawab of Junagadh in his private hunting grounds.[7]

One lion was killed near Allahabad in 1866.[17] The last lion of Mount Abu was spotted in 1872.[18]

Ecology and behaviour[edit]

Male Asiatic Lion having a sun bath in Sasan Gir forest.
Comparative illustration of typical Asiatic lion mane types.
Male Asiatic lion after a fight in Gir Forest.

Asiatic lions live in prides. Mean pride size, measured by the number of adult females, tends to be smaller than for African lions: most Gir prides contain just two adult females, with the largest having five.[19] Coalitions of males defend home ranges containing one or more groups of females; but, unlike African lions, Gir males generally associate with their pride females only when mating or on a large kill. A lesser degree of sociability in the Gir lions may be a function of the smaller prey available to them: the most commonly taken species (45% of known kills), the chital, weighs only around 50 kg (110 lb).[20]

In general, lions prefer large prey species within a weight range of 190 to 550 kg (420 to 1,210 lb) irrespective of their availability. Yet they predominately take prey substantially smaller than this, reflecting their opportunistic hunting behaviour. Within this range, they prefer species that weigh 350 kg (770 lb), which is much larger than the largest recorded weight of lion. The group hunting strategy of lions enables exceptionally large prey items to be taken. Hunting success in lions is influenced by hunting-group size and composition, the hunting method used and by environmental factors such as grass and shrub cover, time of day, moon presence and terrain.[21] Domestic cattle have historically been a major component of the Gir lions’ diet.[7]

In 1974, the Forest Department estimated the wild ungulate population to be 9,650 individuals. This population grew consistently in subsequent surveys, reaching 31,490 in 1990 and 64,850 in 2010, consisting of 52,490 spotted deer, 4,440 wild boar, 4,000 sambar, 2,890 blue bull, 740 chinkara, and 290 four-horned antelope. Thus, in the past four decades, the population of wild ungulates increased by over ten times. In contrast, populations of domestic buffalo and cattle declined following resettlement, largely due to direct removal of resident livestock from the Gir Conservation Area. The population of 24,250 resident animals in the 1970s declined to 12,500 in the mid-1980s, but increased to 23,440 animals in 2010. Following changes in both predator and prey communities, Asiatic lions shifted their predation patterns. Today, very few livestock kills occur within the sanctuary, and instead most occur in peripheral villages. In and around the Gir forest, depredation records indicate that lions killed on average 2023 livestock annually between 2005 and 2009, and an additional 696 individuals in satellite areas.[4]

Threats[edit]

The Asiatic lion currently exists as a single subpopulation, and is thus vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events, such as an epidemic or large forest fire. There are indications of poaching incidents in recent years. There are reports that organised gangs have switched attention from tigers to these lions. There have also been a number of drowning incidents after lions fell into wells.[1]

Prior to the resettlement of Maldharis, the Gir forest was heavily degraded and used by livestock, which competed with and restricted the population sizes of native ungulates. Various studies reveal tremendous habitat recovery and increases in wild ungulate populations following the Maldhari resettlement during the last four decades.[4] 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. Nearly 20,000 open wells dug by farmers in the area for irrigation have also acted as traps, which led to many lions drowning. To counteract the problem, suggestions for walls around the wells, as well as the use of "drilled tube wells" have been made.[citation needed]

Inbreeding[edit]

The wild population of Asiatic lions derived from just a dozen individuals that survived in the early 20th century.[7] The population was thus thought to be highly inbred, and especially vulnerable to disease.[22]

Semen and blood samples collected from 28 wild-caught and captive-bred lions from the Gir forest showed a high incidence (79%) of morphologically abnormal spermatozoa compared to free-ranging African lions, which is nearly always associated with infertility. The Gir lion population may have suffered a drastic population bottleneck or series of bottlenecks followed by inbreeding in their recent history.[8]

In the course of a later study, semen and blood samples were collected from seven lions in three Indian zoos. These samples showed high percentage of motile spermatozoa and low incidence of abnormal spermatozoa, thus implying that inbreeding depression had not affected these animals. The low genetic variability may be a feature of the species and not a result of inbreeding in recent times.[23] The RAPD techniques used in this population genetics research have been criticized as being imprecise and having major technical and analytical drawbacks.[24]

Conservation[edit]

Panthera leo persica is included on CITES Appendix I, and is fully protected in India.[19]

Reintroduction[edit]

In the 1950s, biologists advised the government to re-establish at least one wild population in the Asiatic lion's former range in order to ensure the population’s reproductive health and to prevent it from being affected by an outbreak of an epidemic. In 1956, the Indian Board for Wildlife accepted a proposal by the Uttar Pradesh government to establish a new sanctuary for the envisaged reintroduction : the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary covering 96 km2 (37 sq mi) in eastern Uttar Pradesh where climate, terrain and vegetation is similar to the conditions in the Gir Forest. In 1957, one male and two female wild-caught Asiatic lions were set free in the sanctuary. This population comprised 11 animals in 1965, which all disappeared thereafter.[25]

The initiative to find an alternative habitat for reintroducing Asiatic lions was pursued in the early 1990s. Biologists from the Wildlife Institute of India assessed several potential translocation sites for their suitability regarding existing prey population and habitat conditions. The Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Madhya Pradesh was ranked as the most promising location, followed by the Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary and the Darrah National Park.[26] Until 2000, 1,100 families from 16 villages had been resettled from the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, and another 500 families from eight villages envisaged to be resettled. With this resettlement scheme the protected area was expanded by 345 km2 (133 sq mi).[25]

Gujarat state officials resisted the relocation, since it would make the Gir Sanctuary lose its status as the world's only home of the Asiatic lion. Gujarat has raised a number of objections to the proposal, and the matter is now before the Indian Supreme Court. In April 2013, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat state to send some of their Gir lions to Madhya Pradesh to establish a second population there.[27] The court has given wildlife authorities six months to complete the transfer. The number of lions and which ones to be transported will be decided at a later date.[citation needed]

In captivity[edit]

When kept in zoos in colder climates, lions usually develop stronger manes. An adult male Asiatic lion at Chester Zoo.
An Asiatic lioness is reclining in the Ueno Zoo.

The North American populations of captive Asiatic lions are composed of descendants of five founder lions, three of which were pure Asian and two of which were African or African-Asian hybrids. The lions kept in the framework of the Species Survival Plan consisted of animals with high inbreeding coefficients.[8] DNA fingerprinting studies of Asiatic lions have helped in identifying individuals with high genetic variability, which can be used for conservation breeding programs.[28]

Until recently, captive Asiatic lions in Indian zoos were haphazardly interbred with African lions confiscated from circuses, leading to genetic pollution in the captive Asiatic lion stock. Once discovered, this led to the complete shutdown of the European and American endangered species registered breeding programs for Asiatic lions, as its founder animals were captive-bred Asiatic lions originally imported from India and were ascertained to be intraspecific hybrids of African and Asian lions. Since then, India has altered its practices and now breeds only pure native Asiatic lions. This has helped revive the European Endangered Species Programme for Asiatic lions. The EEP was resumed in 1990 when London Zoo obtained two pairs of pure Asiatic lions from Sakkarbaug Zoological Garden in India (males Jake and Arthur, and sisters Chandani and Ruchi). The program was expanded when the Zurich and Helsinki zoos received animals in 1991 and 1992 respectively. The European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) formalized the program in 1994 and the studbook was held at London zoo. The program was a success and there are now over 100 Asiatic lions in the EEP. However, the American Species Survival Plan has yet to receive purebred Asiatic lions from India, which are needed to form a new founder population for breeding in zoos on the American continent.[29]

Evolution[edit]

Asiatic lion depicted on a hunting scene (7th century BC, Nineveh)

Fossil remains found in the Cromer Stage suggest that the lion entered Europe with a gigantic form. Frequently encountered lion bones in cave deposits from Eemian times suggest that the late Pleistocene European cave lion, Panthera leo spelaea, survived in the Balkans and Asia minor. There was probably a continuous population extending into India.[30] Cave lions appeared about 600,000 years ago and were distributed throughout Europe, across Siberia and into western Alaska. The gradual formation of dense forest likely caused the decline in geographic range of lions near the end of the late Pleistocene.[12]

African (above) and Asiatic (below) lions, as illustrated in Johnsons Book of Nature

Phylogenetic analysis of cave lion DNA samples showed that they were highly distinct from their living relatives, and represent lineages that were isolated from lions in Africa and Asia ever since their dispersal over Europe in prehistoric times. They went extinct without mitochondrial descendants on other continents.[31]

Fossil remains of lions were found in Pleistocene deposits in West Bengal.[32] A fossil carnassial found in the Batadomba Cave indicates that Panthera leo sinhaleyus inhabited Sri Lanka during the late Pleistocene, and is thought to have become extinct around 39,000 years ago. This subspecies was described by Deraniyagala in 1939. It is distinct from the extant Asiatic lion.[33]

Lions inhabited the southern part of the Balkan peninsula up to Macedonia and probably the Danube River, but disappeared in Greece around the first century. In the Trans-Caucasus, they were known since the Holocene and became extinct in the 10th century.[14] Pocock held the view that their restricted distribution in India attests that they were comparatively recent immigrants that came to India through Persia and Baluchistan.[7]

A phylogeographic analysis based on mtDNA sequences of lions from across their entire range indicates that sub-Saharan African lions are phylogenetically basal to all modern lions. These findings support an African origin of modern lion evolution with a probable center in easternsouthern Africa, from where lions migrated to West Africa, eastern North Africa and via the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula into Turkey, southern Europe and northern India during the last 20,000 years. Natural barriers to lion dispersal comprise the Sahara Desert, equatorial rainforests and the Great Rift Valley.[34]

Taxonomic history[edit]

Following Meyer's first description of an Asiatic lion skin from Persia, other naturalists and zoologists also described lions from other parts of Asia that today are all considered synonyms of P. l. persica:[7]

In mythology and art[edit]

Hindu Goddess Durga has an Asiatic lion as her vahanam or divine mount
A page from Kelileh o Demneh dated 1429, from Herat, a Persian translation of the ancient Indian Panchatantra.
Emblem of the Hoysala Empire in Ancient India, depicting Sala fighting the Lion.
Dirham coin of Kaykhusraw II, Sivas, AH 638/AD 1240-1
For more details on this topic, see Cultural depictions of lions.
  • The Sanskrit word for lion is सिंह siṃhḥ, which also signifies the Leo of the Zodiac.[39]
  • Narasimha (Narasingh or Narasinga – man-lion) is described as an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism and is worshiped as "Lion God". Thus, Asiatic lions are considered sacred by all Hindus in India.
  • A lion-faced dakini also appears in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. The Hindu deity is known as Narasimha and the Tibetan Buddhist form is known as Siṃhamukhā in Sanskrit and Senge Dongma (Wyl. seng ge gdong ma) in Tibetan.[40]
  • The lion is found on numerous flags and coats of arms all across Asia and Europe, and also appears on the Emblem of India and on the flag of Sri Lanka.
  • Singhāsana meaning seat of a lion is the traditional Sanskrit name for the throne of a Hindu kingdom in India and Sinhalese kingdom in Sri Lanka since antiquity.
  • The surnames Singh, Singha and Sinha derive from the Sanskrit word siṃhḥ and are common Sikh and Hindu surnames dating back over 2000 years to ancient India. They originally only used by Rajputs, a Hindu kshatriya or military caste in India since the seventh century. After the birth of the Khalsa brotherhood in 1699, the Sikhs adopted the name "Singh" at the direction of Guru Gobind Singh. As this name was associated with higher classes and royalty, this action was to combat the prevalent caste system and discrimination by last name. Along with millions of Hindu Rajputs today, it is also used by up to 10 million Sikhs worldwide.[41][42]
  • The Sinhalese people are the majority ethnic group of Sri Lanka. The name Sinhala translates to "lion's blood" or "lion people" and refers to the myths regarding the descent of the legendary founder of the Sinhalese people 2500 years ago, Prince Vijaya, who is said to have migrated from Singhapur (Simhapura or Singur).[43]
  • The words "singha" or "singham" meaning "courageous lion" are used as an ending of many surnames, such as "Weerasingha" used by the Sinhala people, and "Veerasingham" used by the Tamil people.
  • The name Sinhala comes from the belief that Vijaya's paternal grandfather was a lion. An alternative theory places Singhapur in modern Sihor, which happens to be close to the Gir Sanctuary.
  • The island nation of Singapore (Singapura) derives its name from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city), which in turn is from the Sanskrit सिंह siṃha and पुर pura.[44] According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th-century Sumatran Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, on alighting the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on shore that his chief minister identified as an Asiatic lion.[45] Recent studies of Singapore indicate lions have never lived there, and the animal seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger.
  • The lion makes repeated appearances in the Bible, most notably as having fought Samson in the Book of Judges.
  • The lion is the basis of the lion dances that form part of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, and of similar customs in other Asian countries.
  • Chinese guardian lions depicted in Chinese art were modelled on the basis of lions found in Indian temples.[46]
  • Buddhist monks, or possibly traders, possibly brought descriptions of sculpted lions guarding the entry to temples to China. Chinese sculptors then used the description to model "Fo-Lions" (Fo 佛 being Chinese for Buddha) temple statues after native dogs (possibly the Tibetan Mastiff) by adding a shaggy mane. Depictions of these "Fo-lions" have been found in Chinese religious art as early as 208 BC.
  • The Tibetan Snow Lion (Tibetan: གངས་སེང་གེ་; Wylie: gangs seng ge) is a mythical animal of Tibet. It symbolizes fearlessness, unconditional cheerfulness, the eastern quadrant and the element of Earth. It is said to range over mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane. Two Snow Lions appear on the flag of Tibet.
  • The symbol of the lion is closely tied to the Persian people. Achaemenid kings were known to carry the symbol of the lion on their thrones and garments. The Lion and Sun, or Shir-va-Khorshid, is one of the most prominent symbols of Iran. It dates back to the Safavid dynasty, and was used on the flag of Iran until 1979.
  • The Nemean lion of pre-literate Greek myth is associated with the Labours of Herakles.[citation needed]
  • Scythian art from Ukraine dated to the 4th century BC depicts Scythians hunting very realistically portrayed lions.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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