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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Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 80 – The Malayan Sun Bear


Sun Bear in captivity at the Columbus Zoo, Powell Ohio - Ryan E. Poplin

“It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else”
Maimonides

What is it about bears!  You would think they would be revered on account of their size alone.  And, in the case of this bear, its name.  After all, Inti or Apu-punchau, the Inca Sun God was worshipped by so many for so long.  But, these bears have not been afforded the same courtesy.  Instead these poor creatures are persecuted beyond belief.  Just like their cousins, the Asiatic black bears, they are trapped and incarcerated for their fur, bile and gall bladders.  Traditional Chinese Medicine is claiming their body parts and the paws of the bear are sold as a delicacy in restaurants.  Their habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate and, on top of all that, the ill-informed seem to think bear cubs make good pets (after killing the mother, that is).  All-in-all, a sad indictment of man’s behaviour toward animals.

Although considered a large animal, Malayan sun bears are the smallest of all bear species, with, incidentally, the largest canines. Reaching a maximum length (males) of almost four and a half feet, they can weigh up to one hundred and forty-four pounds. Males tend to be a lot larger than females.

Sun bear in tree. Photographer credit - UcumariMalayan sun bears (or honey bears as they are sometimes known) have short, smooth, water-repellent, dark-brown to black fur, with an orangey/yellow bow-shaped mark on their chests.  The same colour of fur surrounds the muzzle and the eyes.  The skin around the neck is loose, allowing the bear to twist and bite its attacker when necessary. They have strong paws with hairless soles and long curved claws.  Their snouts are flexible and they have extraordinarily long tongues – an adaptation for gathering termites from the nests and mounds.  Sun bears have very poor eyesight, but a keen sense of smell, which helps them to detect food.  They are good climbers and can often be found resting in trees. 

Despite being the smallest of the species, sun bears can be quite aggressive, and there have been recorded unprovoked attacks.  Sun bears have been observed living together whilst raising cubs, but, usually they are solitary and the mother and cubs are the only ones to stay together. 

Living in a tropical climate, with an all-year-round supply of food, the need to hibernate does not arise.

Baby sun bear Wellington ZooThere is no specific breeding season.  The gestation period following mating is roughly ninety-six days.  One to three tiny, altricial (furless, eyes closed and  dependent upon the parent) cubs will be born.  The cubs will continue to nurse for about eighteen months. Cubs remain with their mothers until  fully grown and are able to fend for themselves.  Female bears use holes inside large, old hollow trees to birth the babies.

Habitat
Tropical evergreen rainforest including swamps and limestone/karst hills, and lower montane forest.
Where
Bangladesh, Brunei, Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.
What they eat
Fruit (especially figs) and berries, insects, small vertebrates, eggs, honey and termites. They use their very long tongues to access the mounds and nests of termites, the hives of bees and tree holes with insects.
Threats
In most countries:  Habitat loss due to plantation development, unsustainable logging practices, illegal logging both within and outside protected areas.  Commercial poaching of bears for the wildlife trade is a huge threat.  Other reasons for killing bears include: Crop damage, capture of cubs for pets (the mother being killed in the process) and commercial hunting.
On the islands of Sumatra and Borneo:  Large-scale conversion of forest to oil palm plantations.
In Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Viet Nam:  Sun bears are commonly poached for their gall bladders and paws; the former is used as a Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the latter as an expensive delicacy.
In China and Viet Nam:  Bile is milked from commercially farmed bears;  however, although sun bears can be found on these farms, the majority of bears used in this practise are Asiatic black bears.  Bears are routinely removed from the wild to replenish stock on these small farms.
The Malayan sun bear has few natural predators.
Status: Vulnerable
The Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild).  It has been listed on CITES Appendix I since 1979.
Killing bears is illegal in all range countries.  However, little enforcement of these laws occurs.  It has to be said, the areas which need patrolling are vast, making this an overwhelming task for rangers.  But, given exploitation for body parts is expected to continue, these bears will be gone if something effective is not done soon. .
In Thailand alone, it is estimated that commercial poaching of sun bears has reduced their numbers by 50% over the last twenty years.


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Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre – Hope at Last For Borneo
Baby bear found strapped to pole in northern Ontario
This article is not about sun bears, it is about a baby bear tormented by children in Canada.  It happened in 2012.  What is noteworthy is the appalling stance the comments took towards the bears, and the unacceptable  ‘kids will be kids’  attitude conveyed by those who clearly thought this behaviour was acceptable.  No wonder so many abuse animals if this is the sort of message children are receiving in a supposedly civilised western country. Though, I very much doubt this article reflects the good Canadian people in general.

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 55 – The Sumatran Rhinoceros


Sumatran Rhinoceros in close-up

Photograph courtesy: World Wildlife Fund

Description
The only surviving member of the Dicerorhinini, a primitive group of rhinos from the Miocene epoch – which existed almost twenty million years ago, the Sumatran rhino is now close to extinction itself.  It is also closely related to the woolly rhinoceros, which roamed throughout Europe and Asia until a mere ten thousand years ago.  The Sumatran rhino was widespread across Asia as recently as the early twentieth century. Now it seems doomed to go the way of its ancestors.

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of all the rhino.  But, as you would expect, these animals are not lightweights.  They weigh in at anything up to two thousand pounds, can grow to a length of nine and a half feet and stand up to five feet at the shoulder.  They have grey leathery-looking skin, which, contrary to belief, is quite thin and pliable.  They are not smooth-skinned either, as you would perhaps expect.  They are covered in coarse hair which has earned them the nickname of ‘hairy rhino’ in some circles.  Another notable characteristic is the prehensile upper lip, used for tearing food.  Add to that its short, stocky body and stumpy legs and its whole appearance is that of a small furry tank.

But, it is the horns which are most interesting.  For starters, they have two of them; the only Asian rhino to do so. Although, the posterior horn is very small and often absent altogether in females.  The horns are made of keratin, as fingernails are, and will grow back in the same way if broken off or torn.  The most obvious use of the horn would be self-defence, but this is not its true purpose.  Sumatran rhino use their horns for reaching vegetation (of which they eat over fifty kilos a day), fashioning wallows and protecting their heads when travelling through dense vegetation.

Rhino are nocturnal, feeding very early in the morning and late at night.  Their days are spent wallowing in mud. The mud protects them from the sun’s rays and keeps them cool. It also helps to stave off insects.  They are found near water, and the mudholes they wallow in are made by themselves.  They will only use a hole a few times and then move on.

Sumatran rhino only come together to breed.  Otherwise, they are solitary animals. Calves are usually born during the rainy season, from October to May. Females birth every three to four years.  After a long gestation period of fifteen to sixteen months, a single calf will be born with a dense coat of hair.  The calf will stay with its mother for the next two or three years.

I recently read an article where rhino horns, on the living rhino, were being poisoned.  It seems South Africa has taken the dramatic, and brilliant , step of injecting the horns of living rhino with chemicals which, although will not harm the rhino, will definitely make anyone who uses it in crushed form, very ill.  Hopefully, this idea will spread across the globe and eventually render rhino horn worthless on the black market.  Read more…

Habitat
Tropical rainforests and montane moss forests.
Where
Sumatra, western Indonesia and Sabah, Malaysia.   It is not known whether a small population still exists in Borneo, but the species is generally thought to be now extinct in that location.
What they eat
Leaves, fruits, twigs and bark.
Threats
The main threat to the Sumatran rhino is hunting.  Like all rhino, it is callously slaughtered for its horns and other body parts, believed to have medicinal properties. Yet again, the folly of Chinese traditional medicine prevails.  The horns alone can fetch up to thirty thousand US dollars per kilo on the black market, making the horns extremely valuable and the rhino extremely vulnerable.
Another major threat is loss of habitat resulting from illegal logging and land conversion. The Sumatran rhino is left to inhabit small fragmented pockets of forest, and as such is left exposed to disease, fire and possible inbreeding.

Status: Critically Endangered
Although hunting is now illegal, poachers are not deterred.  And, the destruction of their natural habitat continues.  Both these factors have led to the status of this species becoming critical.

From the 31 March to the 4 April, 2013, the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit took place.  On the 4th of April, 2013, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued a press release.

“With population estimates of Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) reduced to less than 100 individuals, a ground-breaking agreement to save the Critically Endangered species was reached today between representatives of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments. The agreement was formed at a summit convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC), involving a wide range of international and national organisations.” Read more…

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man”
Stewart Udall

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 38 – The Bengal Tiger


Bengal tiger

Photography by Nikolay Tonev

Description
One of the most persecuted creatures on the planet,  the Bengal tiger is also one of the most beautiful.  But greed and misguided myths are pushing the species to the brink of extinction.  Notwithstanding, it is still the most numerous tiger sub-species.

The Bengal tiger is a powerful killing machine.  One reported kill demonstrated this power when a Bengal took down, killed and dragged away a gaur  –  the largest living bovine.  These beasts weigh over a ton, so that’s quite some feat.  Bengals, like other tigers, hunt at night, killing their prey by severing the spinal cord, via a bite to the nape of the neck, or suffocating the prey by a bite to the throat.  Death is usually quick and painless.  Once dead, the prey is dragged to cover for consumption.  Tigers can gorge their way through sixty pounds of meat in one go.  If any is left, they cover the kill and save it for later.  Not known for their efficiency in hunting, they need to get as much down as possible before the next meal, which may elude them for several days.  They also have the longest canine teeth of any extant big cat, three to four inches.

They are swift runners, excellent swimmers, hugely successful climbers and can leap great distances of over thirty feet.  Like domestic cats, they purr.  Purring can either denote happiness or pain.  Their almighty roar can be heard over a distance of two miles, allowing for communication with other tigers.

The largest of all living cats, there is no doubt these animals are a considerable size.  The male of the species can grow to ten feet in length and weigh up to six hundred and fifty pounds.  The females are slightly smaller and less heavy.  The unique appearance makes the tiger instantly recognisable. It has an orange coat with black stripes (no two have exactly the same stripes) and white patches on the face and neck with a white underside.

There is no specific mating season for tigers, it’s an all year round event, but November to April seems quite popular. The gestation period is one hundred and three days, after which a litter of up to six cubs are born.  Sadly, there is a very high mortality rate within the first year of their lives.  Those that do make it will stay with their mothers until they are about eighteen months old.

Habitat
Both tropical and subtropical rainforests, deciduous forests and scrub forests, alluvial grasslands and mangroves.
Where
Most are found in India with lesser populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar.
What they eat
Larger prey such as deer and wild cattle, and smaller hoofed prey including antelope, wild pigs and boar.  Though not strictly part of their natural diet, they have also been known to eat humans.
Threats
Poaching:  The tiger has been slaughtered for centuries because, according to the tenets of Chinese medicine, their bones and other parts have extensive healing properties.  As a result they are in high demand.  Skins are traded on the black market and fetch a considerable amount, as do the body parts.   Habitat loss due to illegal logging and plantations building is also playing a large part in their dwindling numbers.  Human/tiger conflict arises frequently.
Status: Endangered

The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, and on  Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora  (CITES).   In the 1970s game reserves were created.  These worked well for a short period of time and numbers became more stable. But, the potential profit involved in poaching is so great, it took hold once more, putting the Bengal at risk again.  Unless extensive and robust support is put in place, this species will no longer survive in the wild.   The World Bank is currently, amongst others, addressing this and making a significant contribution to the future of tigers in general.

“The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else”
Barry Commoner

Recommended reading:   As Tigers Near Extinction, a Last-ditch Strategy Emerges