Asiatic Lion

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    Asiatic Lion

    Asiatic Lion Hunt

    The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in the Gir Forest of Gujarat, India. In 2010, the Gujarat government reported that 411 Asiatic lions were sighted in the Gir forest; a rise of 52 over the last census of 2005.

    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 north-eastern 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 lion are smaller and lighter than their African counterparts, but are equally aggressive. It is sometimes misidentified as the national animal of India, which is in fact the Tiger, Panthera tigris.

    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. The colour ranges from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey.

    Asiatic Lion

    Their size corresponds to that of central African lions. In adult males, the maximum skull length is 330–340 mm, while that of females is 266–277 mm. They reach a weight of 160–190 kg. (n=4) for the males and 110–120 kg. (n=2) for the females. The scientific record for the longest male is of 292 cm, while the maximum height to the shoulders reported is of 107 cm. The Captain Smee hunted a male of 268 cm long, which weight 222.3 kg, excluding the entrails. The largest known wild male, in the hunting records, was exactly 3 m (9.9 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. It has been suggested that 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 & 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 2010) which live in a 1,412 km² (558 square miles) 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 locally extinct in 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 15,000 to 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 by the presence of nomadic heardsmen 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 kill 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.

    Gir Forest and the Saga of the Asiatic Lion By Sudipta Mitra

    Inbreeding Concerns
    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 exterminated by then. Census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100.Many studies have reported that 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 that "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 that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of inbreeding in recent times. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that 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.

    Until recently, captive Asiatic Lions in Indian zoos were haphazardly interbred with African Lions, which were confiscated from circuses leading to Genetic pollution in the captive Asiatic lion stock. Once discovered, this led to the complete shutdown of the European (EEP) and the American endangered species registered breeding programs (SSP) for Asiatic Lions, as the founder animals, the captive bred Asiatic lions, originally imported from India were ascertained to be an intraspecific hybrids of African and Asian lions. Since then, India has corrected its mistake and now breeds only pure native Asiatic Lions, and in turn has helped revive the European endangered species registered breeding program (EEP) for Asiatic Lions. However, the American SSP, which completely shutdown in the early 1980s has yet to receive pure bred Asiatic Lions from India, in order to form a new founder population for breeding in zoos on the American continent.

    For over a decade, effort has been made to establish a second independent population of Asiatic Lions at the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Wildlife Institute of India researchers confirmed that the Sanctuary is the most promising location to re-establish a free-ranging population of the Asiatic lions, and has certified it as ready to receive its first batch of translocated lions from the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, where they are highly overpopulated. The Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was selected as the reintroduction site for the Asiatic lion because it is located in the former range of the lions before they were hunted into extinction in about 1873. However, the state of Gujarat has been resisting 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. Meanwhile, Kuno officials are toying with the idea of releasing some captive-bred.

    The famous original sandstone sculpted Lion Capital of Ashoka preserved at Sarnath Museum which was originally erected around 250 BCE atop an Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. The angle from which this picture has been taken, minus the inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, has been adopted as the National Emblem of India showing the Horse on the left and the Bull on the right of the Ashoka Chakra in the circular base on which the four Indian / Asiatic lions are standing back to back. On the far side there is an Elephant and a Lion instead. The wheel "Ashoka Chakra" from its base has been placed onto the center of the National Flag of India.

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