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The Lion of India

Indian Lion : Panthera leo persica Here is your quick 'at a glance' guide to the key facts and figures about the Asiatic lion. You can also download the Asiatic lion factsheet in PDF format to print out at home. The factsheet also includes information about the habitat, behaviour and conservation of the lion of India.
Scientific name : Panthera leo persica
Weight : Male 150-250Kg; Female 120-180Kg
Length (head and body): Male 1.7-2.5m; Female 1.4-1.75m
Length (tail) : 70-105cm
Shoulder height : Male 1-1.23m; Female 80-107cm
Sexual Maturity : Male 5 years; Female 4 years
Mating season : All year round
Gestation period : 100-119 days
Number of young : 1 to 6
Birth interval : 18-26 months
Typical diet : Deer, antelope, wild boar, buffalo
Lifespan : 16-18 years

The Indian lion is another name for the Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica, the sub-species that once ranged from Greece to central India. This animal has played a major part in the symbols and folklore of Indian culture for over 2000 years.

The Asiatic lion has long been celebrated as Lord of Beasts, and it became a symbol for human power and sovereignty. In ancient societies in India, to fight with a lion was considered to be the ultimate test of leadership. This gradually shifted to a somewhat safer, more symbolic gesture of a leader clothing himself in or standing on a lion skin. There were magnificent depictions of lions amongst the statues at Mahabalipuram. The most important use of the lion as a symbol of power and strength was associated with the Emperor Asoka in Sarnath, 2000 years ago. This depiction of a lion eventually became the symbol for the modern Republic of India.

As India’s population grew and began cultivating or settling more and more of its forest and scrublands, the Asiatic lion was squeezed nearly out of existence. Early this century the Gir Forest area in the state of Gujarat on the west coast was afflicted with a terrible famine brought on by a severe drought: one so devastating that it is still mentioned in the folklore of the region. Because of the strained circumstances, the lion population began preying on the human population in the area. This prompted a massive backlash against the lions, resulting in a catastrophic decline in their population. In 1910 there were reported to be fewer than two dozen lions left in the wild although this low figure may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting - census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100.
Before they were completely wiped out, the lions came under the protection of the Nawab of Junagadh, a local monarch, who banned all lion hunting in the area. Soon, the lion population began to rise in number. By the declaration of Indian independence in 1947, the government had come to realise the importance and fragile nature of this last bastion of the Asiatic lion, and the Nawab’s conservation policy was upheld. Naturalists were assigned to study and take a census of the Gir’s lion population. At that time there were around 200 lions.

The Indian government then created the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary - collectively known as the Gir Protected Area (PA), covering over 1000 km². The area is made up of dry scrubland with hills, rivers, and teak forest. In addition to the lion population, the Gir PA contains leopards, antelope, deer, jackals, hyenas, and marsh crocodiles.

Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than their African cousins, although the largest Asiatic lion on record was an imposing 2.9 m in length. Though they have a less well developed mane, Asiatic lions have thicker elbow tufts and a longer tail tuft.

At the present time the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary is the only place to see Asiatic lions in the wild, and the Indian government has begun to do more to make this unique spectacle visible to tourists and wildlife enthusiasts. Guided jeep safaris through the Gir are available for observing lions. Because the lions are not afraid of people or vehicles these safaris can offer very intimate views of the animals. Sometimes lions will actually approach and look over a vehicle in their midst.

Asiatic Lion, Panthera leo persica

The Asiatic lion was once widespread throughout Southwest Asia. Today the species can only be found in a single location in the wild, the Gir forest in India. Although genetically distinct from the sub-Saharan African lion, the difference is not large. In fact, the difference is less than that found between different human racial groups. The closeness in genetic make-up between Asiatic and African lions indicates that the two populations separated as recently as 100,000 years ago.

adult male Asiatic lionThe most noticeable physical characteristic found in all Asiatic lions, but rarely in African lions, is a longitudinal fold of skin running along the belly. Also, the mane of the Asiatic lion is generally shorter than that of the African lion, so the ears are always visible. Asiatic lions are, in general, slightly smaller than African lions. Studies on Gir lions yielded the following figures: adult males weighed 160-190 kg, while adult females weighed 110-120 kg. The largest Asiatic lion on record measured 2.9 m from nose to tail-tip.

Like their African cousins, Asiatic lions are highly sociable animals living in social units called prides. There are however differences in pride make up between the sub-species. Based on the average number of adult females, the Asiatic pride is smaller. Studies have shown that most Gir prides contain just two adult females as compared to the average African pride which contains 4 to 6 adult females. The largest recorded female coalition of Asiatic lionesses is a group of five. However, it must be said that despite the small population and habitat area, few individual animals are known. Further field studies may show that what are currently identified as separate prides may actually be small foraging groups from larger prides. Adult male Asiatic lions exhibit a lesser degree of sociality than African males. Asiatic males only associate with the pride when mating or on a large kill. It has been suggested that this may be due to the smaller prey species available in Gir.

The most commonly taken prey are the chital and the sambar deer. However, domestic cattle have historically been a major component of the lions’ diet. This often leads to conflict between lions and humans. Despite the strong increase shown in the wild ungulate prey base a significant proportion of lion kills still consist of livestock. It should be noted that the ease of locating livestock kills compared to wild ungulate kills may distort the true proportion of wild/domestic kills. The availability of domestic livestock has also been put forward as another cause of the loose sociality of Gir lions.

The Asiatic lioness becomes sexually mature at 3 to 4 years old. In males sexual maturity is not reached until between 5 and 8 years. Females may come into season at any time during the year and give birth to litters of between 1 and 5 cubs. The average litter is 2-3 cubs. Both males and females may continue to breed up to 15 years old.

Approximately one-third of cubs die within their first year; this mortality rate falls to less than 10% for adult lions. In the Gir, females live on average for 17-18 years, but may live to 21 years; males, on average, live up to 16 years.

The range of this lion sub-species formerly stretched from northern Greece across Southwest Asia to central India. It became extinct in eastern Europe around 100 A.D., and in Palestine around the time of the Crusades. It remained widespread elsewhere until the advent of firearms in the mid 1800s led to widespread extinction. The lion had disappeared from Turkey by the late 1800s; the last reported sightings in Iran and Iraq date to 1942 and 1918 respectively. In India the lion came under heavy hunting pressure and by the turn of the century was restricted to the Gir forest.

The first census of lions in the Gir was conducted in 1936 and yielded a result of 234 animals, based on identification of individual paw prints (pug marks). Later censuses, using animal counts at live baits estimated the adult population at around 100 between 1968-1979. Censuses taken more recently, using live bait and waterhole counts, have indicated that the population is increasing steadily. A 1990 census counted some 221 adults living within the Gir Lion Reserve with a further 30-40 lions living in the surrounding agricultural areas. However, the accuracy of the waterhole counting technique has been questioned and substantially reliable results will not be obtained until individuals are marked.

Radio-telemetry studies have estimated the mean annual home range for male lions at 110 km², and females at 50 km². Male coalitions have ranges between 100-150 km² while single males have ranges of comparable size to that of females. Population density is estimated at one lion per 7 km², which would yield a total population of 202 adults, very close to the 1990 census result.

'Wild Cats - Species Survey and Conservation Action Plan'
Compiled and edited by Kristin Nowell & Peter Jackson
IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.