Asiatic Lions: Back from the Brink

Josh Wright

23 Oct 2017

How Asia's last lion was rescued after almost being wiped out

When we think of lions in their natural habitat, the first image that usually comes to mind is a vast African savannah studded with acacia trees, with herds of zebra and antelope moving across swathes of sun-baked soil. Lions used to range across Eurasia, but even today there is still one place outside of the African continent where you can see these magnificent beasts in the wild.

The Asiatic lion is smaller and shaggier than its African cousin, and can only be found in one location: India’s Sasan Gir National Park, on the country’s western edge. Despite their currently limited distribution, the story of the Asiatic lion is a rare conservation success story. 

In the early 1900s the species hung by a thread, with as few as 20 individuals left in the wild after systematic hunting by British colonials brought the species to the brink of extinction.

It was only then that the Nawab of Junagadh banned the hunting of lions within his grounds - the area of land that now composes Sasan Gir National Park - and in so doing offered a lifeline to these beleaguered felines. Now with a protected place to call their own, the Asiatic lion population grew significantly over the course of the twentieth century, helped by the establishment of an official wildlife conservation programme in 1965.

Sasan Gir National Park provides over 500 square miles of habitat for the species, with population numbers growing from 177 in 1968 to 359 in 2005. The latest census – undertaken in 2017 – showed an even further level of growth, with as many as 650 individuals now inhabiting the park. 

Crucially, herbivore populations have also rebounded over the last century, with prey animals such as antelope, wild boar and chital all increasing in number.

This lone representative of the Panthera leo species outside of Africa was driven almost to extinction by human interference, but it is thanks to humans that it has been brought back from the brink. The official seal of the Indian state of Gujarat, in which Sasan Gir National Park is located, depicts a trio of lions sitting fierce and proud above the state’s name rendered in Gujarati. At last, this symbolic veneration is being reflected in the attitudes of modern-day Indians, who work together with park officials to monitor and protect the Asiatic lion population.

A lion census takes places every five years, involving people from surrounding villages who assiduously count and record each lion they come across. Around 300 rangers, many of them recruited from surrounding villages, are employed to track the big cats, while three dedicated rescue teams work to bring injured lions to a treatment centre located at the park’s headquarters. Railways and wells have also been fenced off in an effort to prevent accidents.

It is not just the prospect of employment that has convinced the people living around Gir to share their land peacefully with such an imposing predator. The Asiatic lion holds a place of reverence in Hindu culture, and the villagers’ vegetarianism – itself a product of their religion – is indicative of their respect for the animal. The killing of cattle is met with tolerance rather than anger, and such is the villagers’ esteem for the lion that even the occasional human casualty is accepted as a natural part of life.

This cooperation between officials and locals has even allowed the lion to thrive in captivity. As of 2009, the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) was responsible for over 100 individuals in zoos across Europe, and just last year the London Zoo opened a £5,000,000 exhibit dedicated to the animal. In 2005, the Asiatic lion was the first carnivore to have its conservation status downgraded by the IUCN from critically endangered to endangered.

The story of the Asiatic lion shows that it is not just the establishment of an official sanctuary that contributes to the survival of an endangered species. A committed effort from the people living alongside the wildlife is essential, as is the belief that the animal has a worth beyond what can be harvested from it. 

An animal is not a product, and this animal is now a source of pride for Gir's people. 

For a chance to see these magnificent creatures in the wild, take a look at our Asiatic lion experiences, which allow you to witness these furry conservation success stories as they live and hunt in Gir Forest National Park.


Contact our Destination Specialist to start planning your journey.

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