Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 113 – The Asiatic Lion


Asiatic lion in Gir Forest via Pinterest

“Living wild species are like a library of books still unread. Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning the library without ever having read its books”
John Dingell

Asiatic lionPossibly one of the most persecuted animals in history, this majestic and noble creature has suffered a shocking catalogue of violence and abuse over the past two millennia or more.

It has been used as a weapon, killed for sport and entertainment, stolen for zoo exhibits, graced the floors and trophy rooms of the unconcerned, been poisoned and electrocuted by villagers protecting their cattle, drowned in open-pit wells and is now, in the face of dwindling tiger numbers, being hunted for body parts for use in Chinese Traditional medicine and other applications.

Populations were first dramatically and critically depleted, and in some areas wiped out, in Roman times.  Had you lived as a Christian in ancient Rome, you might have wished this had happened a little sooner.  For Christians were often hunted as criminals for refusing to worship Roman Gods.  And indeed these, the Asiatic lions, were the lions the Christians and other prisoners were “fed to” and the ones gladiators faced in the arenas of the primitive coliseum games of the Roman Empire.

Wild Asiatic lion by Falguna ShahNot the lions choice, of course, they just happened to fit the task in hand.  And at the time they were as abundant as their human fodder.  But there is no doubt the animal’s lives ended very badly.

Killing them was a form of highly popular entertainment. They were starved in cages and then brought up into the arena where they would be baited, abused, stabbed and gored by gladiators, to the delight of the crowd. Sometimes, after they had been encouraged to kill a defenceless prisoner tied to a post.

“Hunts” would also be organised in the arenas with the lions having no way out and no cover.  Attack was their only defence and always ended in the gory and painful deaths of the overwhelmed, trapped lions.

Roman Circus, by K. KochRoman emperors staged these contests for personal popularity. Both animals and humans suffered a terrible fate.  Those who tormented and killed the weakened and frightened lions were hailed as heroes. Those themselves killed were soon discarded and replaced by others. The death toll was high on all sides.  But such deaths meant little to the sadistic Romans.  Their appetites were simply whetted further in their insatiable lust for blood and gore. 

These same callous and depraved Romans undoubtedly started the ball rolling where decimation of certain species are concerned, including the Asiatic lion, by the massacre of multiple species of starving, terrified animals for their own personal gratification.  At the inauguration of Titus, in 80AD, eight thousand animals were slaughtered within three days for his and the crowd’s amusement.

More of this centuries-lasting, unjustifiable slaughter can be found here, but do be prepared to be shocked at the scale of the annihilation and the range of animals concerned.  It is truly disquieting. 

The Christians Thrown to the Beasts by the Romans - Louis Felix LeullierIt is also particularly disturbing to realise a civilisation so advanced in so many ways could be so uncivilised and so deficient in others, including compassion.  The slaughter petered out eventually, after having continued for some four hundred years, but not because someone had developed a sense of fair play or a love of animals; simply because most of the animals were sadly gone and the power of the Roman Empire was declining.

But, by then the Romans had managed to eradicate the Asiatic lion from most parts of its original habitat.  And not just lions were involved in these barbarous activities. There were also elephant, crocodile, ostrich, bear, hippo, leopard, giraffe and rhinoceros, to name but a few of the species concerned.  In fact, anything they could capture by means fair or foul, they did, and with undisguised relish.  In short, the Romans wreaked complete havoc on the indigenous wildlife of Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean; lands which the Asiatic lion once roamed freely.  Some species disappeared altogether.

Asiatic lion showing his huge teeth An early pattern certainly seems to have formed here which, though many may now eschew such practices, great numbers have still not evolved from this mentality; indeed it seems firmly embedded in their psyche. Humans continue to be the lion’s only predator and the same blood-lust and cravings for degenerate fun have never been entirely stamped out.

Lion hunting for trophies and pleasure continued throughout the centuries, long after the Romans were gone.  Wealthy visitors and local tribesmen pursued them for sport. Some native peoples hunted them for meat and others killed them in defence of their own. In the nineteenth century, in India, the only country where they could still be found by this time, British colonial officers were bloated with pride when they were able to take home a lion skin to add to their trophy rooms. One hunter shot over three hundred lions.  

Something started by one empire running rough-shod over the world was finished by another doing the same, almost two thousand years later – so much for empires!

Young male in Gir Forest by Sumeet MogheFinally in 1900, following the devastation created by the British, which left the only remaining population confined to one area – the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat – the lions were afforded legal protection.  At that point, this one isolated population consisted of about one hundred lions.

Hunting of lions is still forbidden in the Gir Forest and its surrounding areas, and although these particular lions are not subjected to profit-making hunts for tourists, there is still some evidence of recreational hunting.

And, inescapably, there are the highly organised gangs of poachers who, despite the endangered status of the lions, continue to profit from them.  Provided, naturally, with a huge incentive.  A new threat has arisen in the past few years. There exists an enormous trade in tiger body parts using virtually every bit of the animal.  As tiger populations have become more depleted and demand has risen, specifically from Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, those who seek bones and other body parts for Traditional Chinese medicines have turned their attentions to lions, with the most at risk being the Asiatic lion.  The ever-growing demand for these medicines could potentially wipe out this species altogether.  A huge revival in the use of traditional medicines is currently occurring.  Demand is high and prices are soaring. Anything containing tiger parts is considered a status symbol. Ergo, anything containing lion parts seems destined to achieve the same repute.

Another young male in Gir Forest taking a breakIf the Chinese peoples, most notably, but not exclusively, the absurd nouveau riche (tuhao), do not develop some respect for wildlife soon, it will only be a matter of time before they have either eaten the planet clean or poached every last available tiger, lion, pangolin, elephant and rhinoceros.  All in the name of “traditional” medicine (using animal parts which serve no medicinal purpose whatsoever), in the pursuance of “must-have” items of adornment and by ritual slaughter for entertainment

As with ivory, the tuhao need to learn how to be more responsible and intelligent when using their new-found wealth.  Cites restrictions and rules are either not working here or not being applied, rendering them pointless at this juncture. Unless change is effected soon, there will be no wildlife left to protect and cherish.

One cannot help but see certain similarities here between the current rising Chinese Dynasties and the long gone Roman Empire.  Albeit the use of the animals differs.

Pride of Asiatic lions at one of the many open-pit wells in Gir Forest via National GeographicSince India’s human population in the area surrounding the Gir Forest recently reached over one billion, much conflict between the lions and the natives has arisen. The lions are also vulnerable to unpredicted events because of the nature of their population.  Added to which, open-wells across the area have resulted in deaths by drowning as the lions literally fall into the unguarded holes.  Crudely erected electric fences also play their part in the mortality rates.

An article written in the Scientific American suggests, quite rightly, the Asiatic lion has outgrown its space in the Gir National Park.  Relocation discussions began twenty years ago, and still continue as the parties involved scrap over “whose lions are they anyway!” and “will they be safe from the resident tigers in their new home”.  Court cases have been brought and plans made, but currently pleas are flying around and any final decisions hang in the balance.  After years of litigation it has become clear, the good people of the state of Gujarat are more than a little reluctant to let their lions go, despite the obvious necessity for greater habitat.

Asiatic lion - panthera leoAlthough smaller than African lions, the overall appearance of the male Asian lion is very similar.  The mane is one distinguishing feature.  The Asiatic male lion lacks the enormous half-body-covering mane of the African male lion. It’s mane is much shorter and less dense, leaving the ears visible. Other notable features are the fold of skin beneath the belly of the Asiatic lion and the longer tufts of hair on the elbows and the end of the tail.

This impressive apex predator can reach a length of eight feet, with a three-foot long tail and weighs over six hundred pounds. On top of this intimidating bulk, the Asiatic lion sports a set of very powerful and retractable claws and long, sharp canine teeth.

This is one very ferocious beast that hunts down its prey of deer, antelope and boar with consummate ease.  Running up to fifty mph, it pounces on its prey without missing a step.  In fact, it is capable of jumping up to thirty-six feet when needs must, so prey on the ground presents no problem.  Though despite these skills not every chase ends in a kill.

Lioness hunting by Tambako the JaguarThe females are the hunters in the pride whilst the males spend most of their day loafing around. They do, however, get first dibs at the meal and usually the largest share.  They are followed by the cubs.  The female, for all her hard work, is rewarded with the left-overs. Perhaps this is where the phrase “the lion’s share” comes from.  Altogether they are highly social beasts, living in small prides with females mostly hunting as a team, unless the prey is of manageable size for one lion alone.

Mating takes place all year round with males and females reaching maturity by the time they are five and four years old respectively.  A litter of one to four cubs are usually born after a gestation period of three and a half months.  Cubs are born blind and helpless, they weigh a mere two to four pounds and are fully dependant upon their mothers for the first few weeks of the lives.  They will suckle to the age Asiatic lioness with her cubsof six months but will start eating meat at the age of three months. Whilst male members of the pride will often guard carcasses preventing the lioness from feeding in order to allow the cubs to eat first, males taking over a pride will kill cubs under one year of age. Independence comes at one year.  By then the cubs should have their own hunting skills honed.

Sadly, there is an eighty per cent mortality rate in cubs and infanticide is the major cause.  This is followed by natural causes and occasional parental abandonment.

Those who survive infancy and current threats to the species should hopefully live to their full life expectancy of about twenty years.

A few extra thoughts…
Lions are the second largest of the big cats, after their closest relatives, the tigers.
The lion symbol is used as the national animal of many countries, including England. It has also been used for centuries in heraldic emblems on shields and coats-of-arms.
Though often commonly and mistakenly referred to as the “king of the jungle”, African lions live on grasslands, savannah and plains. As forest dwellers Asiatic lions are the only ones who come relatively close to this label.
Amazingly, the Asiatic lion’s heels don’t touch the ground when it walks and it can issue a roar which can be heard up to five miles away.
The Asiatic or Indian Lion is the only extant species of lion outside Africa.

Asiatic lion - Gir National Park Natural Habitat
Exposed grassy scrubland and dry deciduous forest.
Where
Gir Forest National Park, Western Gujarat, India and the surrounding area. 
What they eat
Primarily deer, antelope and wild boar.
Threats
Forests fires, poisoning, drowning in open-pit wells, inbreeding, disease, loss of habitat and prey,  and poaching.  These lions are now being targeted for Chinese Traditional medicines as tiger populations decrease.
Status: Endangered
The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo ssp. persica) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.  It is also listed in CITES Appendix I and it is fully protected in its native India.  A reintroduction programme, the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project initiated by the Indian government, serves to restore numbers of the species in the wild by way of reintroduction, increase water holes and end poaching, etc.  More details can be found here.  Little more than four hundred of the species exist in the wild. Although the population is now stable, poaching has increased putting numbers once more in jeopardy.  Various zoos across the world hold Asian lions and some participate in captive breeding programs.  A translocation programme to offer a larger prey base is in place, but this is currently being opposed by the Gujarat Government.

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