01 March 2009

lions of india

Not many people know that there are lions in India. I get laughed at for even suggesting something as 'ridiculous' as that. Lions are normally associated with the African Savannah but like the two kinds of elephants, there are two kinds of lions. The sub-species can only be found in a single location in the wild - the Gir forest in Gujarat, India. Although genetically distinct from the sub-Saharan African lion, the difference is not large. Now that we've established that the do exist - what are they differences? Asiatic lions are smaller, with shaggier coats and shorter manes making the ears visible among other minor physical differences. However, their social behaviour remains much the same.

Currently due to their small population size and similarity in gene pool they are threatened by habitat loss and disease. After India gained independence in 1947, the Gir forest was declared a natural park and sanctuary. The most important threat to the lions is the increasing hostility towards them by the resident human population - no surprises there! Lions are poisoned for attacking livestock. 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 but lions and other wildlife are also killed. The Government is coming up with schemes to alleviate the situation and educate the people about conservation.

Considering that the entire population of lions live in one area, they are extremely vulnerable to disease, climatic, man-made and natural disasters. The Gir forest currently has around 350 lions and shifting some of the population to different parts of India will ensure their survival better. The Central government is already pressing hard for shifting the lions from Gir to Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. This is being applauded by conservationists as a forward thinking and encouraging step in the right direction.

According to Pradeep Khanna in an
article in Times of India, additional principal chief conservator of forest, creating gene pools were part of the longterm effort to save the Asiatic lion. "There are two ways of conservation - one, within the environment and second, bringing the animal out of the environment and conserving the genetic diversity. The gene pool will have 10 to 20 animals per pool," said Khanna.

The IUCN lists this sub-species as critically endangered. They are additionally vulnerable because all 350 lions are inbred from 13 pairs which makes the immune system of these animals highly compromised. Asiatic lions were once found all over Southwest Asia and Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that they were found in the Balkans.
The last one died out in Turkey in the 19th century. If current conservation efforts are supported, the Asiatic lion will be here to stay. If not, like the ancient lions of Greece... they will become a myth.

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