Fauna : Lion (Panthera leo persica)
IUCN Status : Endangered CITES I
The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 : Schedule I
Length : Over 9 ft (275 cms)
Weight : Adult Male about 180 Kgs. Adult Female about 110 Kgs


The Asiatic Lion once ranged from Syria through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and much of northern and central India as far south as the Narmada River. By the end of the 19th century, hunting and habitat loss had confined it to its present refuge in the forests of Gir in Gujarat. Down to an all time low of 12 individuals, the Lions in Gir have made a impressive comeback and their numbers have stabilized to around 250-300 today.


Differentiated from its African cousin by a scantier and lighter mane and a prominent belly fold, the Asiatic Lion lives in prides which can vary from 5 to 20+ members. There is far less interaction between males and females than in the African species. Unlike the African savannah, the habitat of the Asiatic Lion is wooded. The main prey species are Chital, Sambar, Nilgai and domestic livestock.

Efforts are currently on to try create a viable population at another location.


Lions originated in Central Europe and paleontological evidence suggests that they are a later separation from the ancestral Panthera stock than the morphologically similar tiger. Lions became extinct in Europe in historical times by which time they had colonised much of Africa and large tracts of Western and southwestern Asia.

To the inexpert eye, the Asiatic and African races are identical. But there are a couple of distinguishing features. The Asiatic Lion, unlike its African cousin, has a scantier mane and so the ears are visible. The colour of the mane is generally lighter than the African and rarely black. Both sexes of the Asiatic Lion have a very prominent belly fold.

Based on 200 years of hunting records, P. Joslin (1973) has determined that the Asiatic Lion once ranged from Syria through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and much of northern and central India as far south as the Narmada River. The river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates of modern day Iraq and the neighbouring coastal areas of Iran, once supported healthy populations. The last sighting of Lions in Iran was in 1942.

The Lion migrated into the sub-continent through the north western passes and colonised much of present day Pakistan and the modern Indian provinces of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Its abundance and wide distribution is attested to by the fact that it became an iconic embodiment of power and wisdom. The great 4th Century Emperor Ashoka placed the 4 Lions on the capital of his pillar edicts symbolically roaring out the message of Dharma in the cardinal directions. The Four Lions remain the national emblem of India.

But the misfortune of the Indian Lion was that its range coincided with the most fertile and populous tracts of the country. Inevitably it emerged as the loser from this confrontation and by the end of the 19th century, it had been driven to its present refuge in the forests of Gir in Gujarat.

In 1880, the population of Gir Lions was at its lowest ebb. With an estimated 12 individuals, the Asiatic Lion teetered on the brink of extinction. Gir lay within the territories of the erstwhile princely state of Junagadh. Its ruler, the Nawab of Junagadh, recognised the importance of saving the Lions and from 1900 imposed a ban on hunting them. It was touch and go but by 1920 the Lions had recovered to about 50 individuals and by 1936 the number had increased dramatically to 250 animals. Although a few Lions remained in Iran until 1942 the Lions of Gir were effectively, the sole remaining representatives of the Asiatic subspecies and to the Nawab and his advisors must go the credit for their salvation.

The Gujarat Forest Department of Post independence India followed the Nawab's policy of protecting the Lions and their habitat. The 1995 count came to 304 Lions.

Indeed, from the forest of Gir, they have extended their range into the coastal forests and areas surrounding Gir as well as the forests of Girnar and Mitiala.

The social organisation of African and Asiatic Lions have much in common but there are significant differences which are perhaps a response to the different conditions in which the animals live. The main difference being the relatively rare sighting of groups with both adult males and females. The Asiatic Lion lives in prides which can vary in size from as many as 20+ to just 5 or 6 individuals. Studies have shown that males form coalitions of 2 to 7 males banding together and then co-operatively defending their territory. Lionesses form groups of related females and their dependent young. Unlike their African cousins, therefore, there is minimal association between resident pride females and the resident males. Various reasons have been attributed to this behaviour -

  • The habitat and terrain of the Gir forest allows for ambush and for males to hunt more efficiently reducing dependence on the pride.
  • The availability of livestock, which are easy and vulnerable prey
  • The chief prey species of the Lions is Chital or spotted deer, which are very small (about 45 kg) - not big enough for males and the rest of the pride to share.

    Studies have shown that males have an annual home range of 140-200sq.km. Females use a smaller area and their annual home range is about 60 to 80 sq km. There are also marked changes in home range size depending on the season and availability of prey.

    As with all cats, Lions advertise their presence and mark their territories by spraying. Vocalisation is also effectively used to announce their presence and the forest resounds with their roars during the cooler hours of the day and at night.

Chital (Cervus axis) are the major prey species for the Lion and are abundant throughout the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park. Other prey species include Sambar (Cervus unicolor) and Nilgai (Bosephalus tragocamelus), Chinkara (Gazella gazella), Chowsingha (Tetracerus quadricornis), Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) and occasionally Common Langur (Semnopithecus entellus).

Livestock (cattle, buffalo and camel) also form a major part of their diet and a scat analysis study in 1973 indicated that 78.5% of the Lions' diet comprised livestock. The Gir forest has been occupied for over a century by the Maldharis, a pastoral community who make a living from livestock, which are allowed to graze in the forest.

The relocation of Maldharis from the National Park area and better habitat management in recent years have resulted in a dramatic increase of the wild prey base. Evidence of this was provided in a 1989 scat analysis study which revealed that the livestock component of the Lion's diet had now fallen to just 25.9% - a significant change over 16 years.

Ambush is the main method of attacking prey and therefore cover is very important. Lions also hunt by night, using darkness as an effective tool. Frequency of kills depends on the size of prey killed and the number of members in a pride. Males sharing a kill with other pride members are tolerant of the females and the cubs. Lions start feeding at the rump and quite often eat up the rumen sac after scattering the contents.

While there appears to be no particular breeding season, many Lions mate between October and November. The young are produced between January and February after a gestation period of about 110 days. A litter could have up to 6 cubs, though 2 or 3 cubs are more common. Cubs are weaned and start eating meat when they about 6 months old. The cubs (especially males) disperse when they about 2 years old.

Females start to breed at the age of 3 and continue breeding up to roughly 14 years of age

  • Threats to the habitat. Mining, agriculture, human habitations, industrialisation.
  • Danger of the entire population (and thereby extinction of the species in the wild) being wiped out should there be an epidemic or a natural disaster.
  • 4 large temples located within the Protected Area attract about 80000 devotees annually creating several problems such as firewood extraction, noise pollution, dumping of garbage and encroachment.
  • 3 highways cut through the Protected Area and carry considerable volume of traffic and provide easy access.
  • Railway line passing through the western and southern portions of the forest has an average 6 trains passing through it everyday and Lions are quite often run over by trains.
  • While livestock grazing by Maldharis does not pose such a huge problem, illegal entry of livestock from adjoining villages is a matter of concern.
  • Occasional poisoning of livestock carcasses killed by Lions.
  • Illegal fuel wood, timber and Minor Forest Produce collection.
  • The practice of the Maldharis collecting the livestock dung along with top soil and selling it as fertilizer, results in loss of valuable nutrients.
Berwick S.H (1974) : The community of wild ruminants in the Gir forest ecosystem, India. Ph.D thesis Yale University,USA
Berwick S.H (1976) : The Gir forests, American Naturalists 64
Chellam,R (1993) : Ecology of the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica)Ph.D thesis, Saurashtra University, Rajkot
Chellam R and Johnsingh A.J.T (1993) : Management of Asiatic Lions in the Gir forest, India; The Zoological Society of London 65
Chellam R; Joshua J; Williams C.A & Johnsingh A.J.T (1995) - Survey of the Potential sites for re-introduction of Asiatic Lions, WII
Dharamkumarsinhji S.K. and Wynter Blyth M.A. (1951): Gir forest and its Lions, JBNHS 49
Dharamkumarsinhji R.S (1998): Reminiscences of Indian Wildlife , Oxford University Press.
Fenton L.L. ( 1921) : The Kathiawar Lion in Persia ,JBNHS 20
Henry G.F. (1943) : Occurrence of Lion in Persia, JBNHS 44
Joslin P.(1973) : The Asiatic Lion : a study of ecology and behaviour Ph.D thesis, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, U.K.
O'Brien S.J; Joslin P; Smith G.L; Wolf R; Schaffer N; Heath E; Joslin J and Martenson J.S. (1987) : Evidence of African origins of founders of the Asian Lion species, Survival Plan; Zoo Biology 6
Rashid M.A. and David Reuben (1992): The Asiatic Lion, MAB project financed by Department of Environment, Govt. of India.
Saberwal K; Gibbs J.P; Chellam R & Johnsingh A.J.T (1994) : Lion human conflict in the Gir
forest, India; Conservation Biology 8
Wildt D.E; Bush M; Goodrowe K.L; Packer C; Pusey K.E; Brown J.L; Joslin P and O'Brien S.J (1987) : Reproductive & genetic consequences of founding isolated Lions populations, Nautre 329
Wynter Blyth M.A. and Dharamkumarsinhji K.S. (1950): The Gir forests and its Lions -Part II, JBNHS 49

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