The Asiatic lion is one of the five major big cats found in India, the others being the Bengal tiger, the Indian leopard, the snow leopard and clouded leopard.The Asiatic lions once ranged from the Mediterranean to the northeastern parts of the Indian Subcontinent, but excessive hunting, water pollution and decline in natural prey reduced their habitat. Historically, Asiatic lions were classified into three kinds – Bengal, Arabian and Persian lions. Asiatic lions are smaller and lighter than their African counterparts, but are equally aggressive.
Habitat rangeThe historic range of the Asiatic lion of the P. l. persica subspecies is believed to have extended from Northern India in the east through modern Iran, south throughout the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula and west towards 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.
Modern habitat of the Asiatic lion is largely limited to the Gir Forest sanctuary in northwestern India.
Biology and behavior
Asiatic lions are similar to African forms, though they have less-swollen tympanic bullae, shorter postorbital constriction, and usually have divided infraorbital foramen. Their colours range from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey.
Their size corresponds to that of central African lions. In adult males, the maximum skull length is 340 mm (13 in), while that of females is 266–277 mm. They reach a weight of 160–190 kg (350–420 lb) for the males and 110–120 kg (240–260 lb) for the females. The scientific record for the longest male is of 292 cm (115 in), while the maximum height to the shoulders reported is of 107 cm (42 in). Captain Smee hunted a male which was 2.68 m (8.8 ft) long and weighed 223.3 kg (492 lb), excluding the entrails. The largest known wild male, in the hunting records, was exactly 3.06 m (10.0 ft) in length.
Asiatic lions are highly social animals, living in units called prides. Their 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 Asiatic males are less social and only associate with the pride when mating or on a large kill. This may be because their prey animals are smaller than those in Africa, requiring fewer hunters to tackle them. Asiatic lions prey predominantly on deer (sambar and chital), antelope (nilgai), gazelle (chinkara), wild boar, water buffalo and livestock.
The Gir Forest National Park of western India has about 411 lions (as of April 2011) which live in a 1,412 km2 (545 sq mi) sanctuary covered with scrub and open deciduous forest habitats. The population in 1907 was believed to consist of only 13 lions when the Nawab of Junagadh gave them complete protection. This figure, however, is highly controversial because the first census of lions in the Gir that was conducted in 1936 yielded a result of 234 animals.
Until about 150 to 200 years ago, 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 the Asiatic lions preferred open forests interspersed with grasslands, which is also home to tigers and leopards. At one time, the Bengal tiger and Asiatic lion might have competed with each other for food and territory.
These Indian big cats lost most of their open jungle and grassland habitat in India to the rising human population, which almost completely converted their entire habitat in the plains of India into farmland. They frequently became targets of local and British colonial hunters.
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 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.
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.
Habitat decline in the Gir Forest may also be contributed to by the presence of nomadic herdsmen known as Maldharis. These communities are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching, but with an average of 50 cattle (mainly "Gir cow") per family, overgrazing is a concern. The 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 in turn, are targeted by people. Many Maldharis have been relocated outside the park by the forestry to allow the lions a more natural surrounding and more natural prey.
The wild population of more than 200 Asiatic lions has been said to be derived from just 13 individuals, and thus was widely thought to be highly inbred. However, this low figure, quoted from 1910, may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting. Hunting of lions was a popular sport with the British Colonialists and Indian Royalty, and all other lions in India had been extirpated by then. Census data from the time indicate the population was probably closer to 100. Many studies have reported the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases due to a weakening immune system, possibly causing their sperm to be deformed, leading to infertility. In earlier studies, Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist, had suggested, "If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually would look like identical twins... because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that was all left at the turn of the 20th century." This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases, and causes 70% to 80% of sperm to be deformed — a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.
A subsequent study suggested their low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of inbreeding in recent times. They also show the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of Asiatic lions. The results of the study have been questioned due the use of RAPD techniques, which are unsuitable for population genetics research.
Genetic pollution of captive Asiatic lions with African lionsUntil 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. However, the American Species Survival Plan), which completely shut down in the early 1980s, 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.
Asiatic Lions in Europe and Southwest Asia
Lions were once found in Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans. When King Xerxes of Persia advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. Lions are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greece around AD 80-100. The Nemean lion from Greek Mythology is widely associated with depictions of Heraklis/Hercules in Greek mythological art.
The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but others consider it a separate subspecies, the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).
Scythian art from Ukraine, dated to the fourth century BC, depicts Scythians hunting very realistically portrayed lions. Lions survived in the Caucasus region until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Union's territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armenia around the year 100 and in Azerbaijan and southwest Russia during the 10th century. The principal reasons for the disappearance of these cats was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the wisent, elk, aurochs, tarpan, deer and other ungulates.
Barbary lionIn 1968, a study of the skulls of the extinct Barbary (North African), extinct Cape, Asiatic, and African lions showed the same skull characteristics – the very narrow bar – that existed in the Barbary and Asiatic lion skulls. This shows there may have been a close relationship between the lions from northernmost Africa and Asia. The South European lion that became extinct around AD 80-100 could have represented the connecting link between the North African and Asiatic lions. Barbary lions are believed to have possessed the same belly fold (hidden under their manes) as those seen in the Asian lions today.
Asiatic Lion in mythology and art
- Found famously on numerous flags and coats of arms all across Asia and Europe, the Asiatic lion also appears on the national emblem of India.
- 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, Indian or Asiatic lions which were commonly found throughout most of India in ancient times are considered sacred by all Hindus in India.
- The Sinhalese are the majority ethnic group of Sri Lanka. The name Sinhala translates to "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). An alternative theory places Singhapur in modern Sihor, which happens to be close to the Gir Sanctuary.
- Singh is a common Sikh and Hindu surname meaning "lion" (Asiatic lion), dating back over 2000 years to ancient India. It derives from the Sanskrit word sinha, which means lion. It was 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.
- Singhāsana (seat of a lion) is the traditional Sanskrit name for the throne of a Hindu kingdom in India since antiquity.
- 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. 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. Recent studies of Singapore indicate lions have never lived there, and the animal seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger.
- The Asiatic lion makes repeated appearances in the Bible, most notably as having fought Samson in the Book of Judges.
- The Asiatic 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: The lion is not indigenous to China, but Asiatic lions were found in neighboring India, as well as western Tibet. These Asiatic lions found in Indian temples are the models for those depicted in Chinese art. Buddhist priests, or possibly traders, possibly brought descriptions to China of sculpted lions guarding the entry to temples. 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.
- 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 Simhamuka in Sanskrit and Senge Dongma (Wyl. seng ge gdong ma) in Tibetan.
- 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 Shir-va-Khorshid, or Lion and Sun, 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.