Of the modern day big cat brigade to roam the Indian subcontinent, apart from the Asiatic cheetah, it is the Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) that have had the closest brush with extinction. Today, the sole surviving population of Asiatic lions lives in the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and has spilled over into the surrounding regions including human inhabited areas in Saurashtra region of the Indian state of Gujarat. This population is spread over approximately 30,000 sq. km. across nine districts in Gujarat. As many as 674 lion individuals make up this reviving population.
Usually, utterance of lions conjures up in the minds of most people African lions roaming the vast savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa. Asiatic lions have more or less been wiped out of human memory as being one of the apex predators spread across large parts of Western Asia, Middle East all the way up to West Bengal in east India and Rewa in Madhya Pradesh in central India. Asiatic lions, which are comparatively smaller than their African counterparts, from whom they separated about 100,000 years ago, were hunted to near extinction. By the turn of the 20th century, only about 20 individuals of the species remained. But, India grandly turned it around for the Asiatic lions and in 1965, 1,153.42 sq. km. of the dry deciduous forest tract of the Gir forests was declared a sanctuary to save the lions. Ever since the protection measures had begun to be enforced, the lion numbers rebounded with alacrity.
Lions, it is known, are the only true social cats among their feline brethren in the wild. Asiatic lions too form prides, though the pride size is smaller than those of the African lions. This may have to do with the fact that Asiatic lions live in forests as opposed to the vast open savannahs which the African lions prefer, and the difference in the size of the prey they are accustomed to hunt in their respective habitats. Asiatic lions hunt and subsist on relatively smaller sized animals such as deer and antelopes. It is the prerogative of the lionesses to hunt for the pride, while the males take up the responsibility of defending the territory and keep intruders away. While females remain a part of the pride they are born into even after they turn adults, the males will separate from their original prides as young lions to conquer and become part of other groups.
While the story of the Asiatic lions and the mammoth conservation efforts to save it from almost certain extinction is highly laudable, other worries plague this last remaining population. As a single and only population, the species is extremely vulnerable and in constant danger of being wiped out by a natural calamity or a disease outbreak. Deadly outbreaks of highly infectious diseases such as canine distemper in recent years has claimed over a hundred lions so far. Already the swelling population of the Asiatic lions and the limited protected forest area has resulted in more and more lions venturing into the neighbouring human settlements creating the perfect recipe for human-lion conflict. It is believed that more than 50 percent of the lion population today is living outside the Protected Area of Gir and the rising interaction between people and lions could have dangerous repercussions on the conservation of the species. Interestingly, studies suggest that lions living in close proximity to human spaces are showing adaptive behaviour and are able to avoid humans and feed on livestock carcasses. Efforts to translocate a part of the Asiatic lion population in Gir to another suitable location within India to mitigate the risk of potential extinction has met with much political and legal resistance over the years. Hopefully, the Asiatic lion will once again freely roam the wilds above and beyond the Gir forests.