The Gir forest was the last refuge of the Asiatic lion. Back in 1893 it was thought that there were only 18 animals remaining. Thankfully that number has rebounded very well (there are scientists who doubt this extremely low number) and the Indian lion population is now thought to number about 600. The problem is, that the reserve is not particularly large at 1410 square km (544 square miles). Even in the Serengeti (which has one of the highest density of lions) there is about 1 lion for every 2 square miles, yet the Gir forest has more than one per square mile. This contributes to a mortality rate that is dangerously high, with 283 lions dying in the last couple of years.
As such it is not surprising that many of the lions live outside the reserve, and is thought that around 1 in 4 live outside the reserve.
This was one of the reasons that efforts were made to move some of these lions to other reserves, but Gujarat has blocked this despite loosing various court cases.
Now, it is not easy to live alongside lions, and the state government is both endangering the long term survival of the Indian Asiatic lion, as well as many of its human population by its determination to hold onto the whole population within its borders.
The decline in African Lions has been pretty constant and totally devastating. Just 100 years ago, there were about 200,000 lions in Africa (some estimates suggest as many as 500,000 in 1950, and 200,000 as late as 1975.
Yesterday, I wrote about the last lions of Nigeria. In Nigeria, there are just 2 populations of lions totalling 35-40. While this is good for the places that the lion has survived, this is highly unlikely to be able to survive long-term. With human assistance, and translocating lions regularly these populations might eventually recover.
There is one place where west African lions might stand a chance without human help and this is W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) protected area complex that straddles Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger and which holds 90% of West Africa’s lions. This is because all other populations are like that in Nigeria – to small to be capable of surviving longterm without human help. While the WAP complex can be lost amongst the brown on this map – if you look at the intersection of Benin Burkina Faso and Niger, you cannot miss it.
Importantly, this population is still 37% of the size of the Indian lion population. In other words, this is the last stronghold of the West African lion; the West (and central) African lion is one of the remaining relict populations of the Asiatic lion – the other one being the Indian lions of the Gir national park.
Should the Asiatic lion be renamed? It is usually referred to as the Indian lion, but with more than 1 in 4 remaining wild Asiatic lions living in Africa, this does not seem right. What is more, while over the last few decades West African lions have not done wonderfully, there is far more available habitat in West and Central Africa than there is in India, or indeed in Asia.
Perhaps more importantly, the Barbary lion, long thought extinct, appears to be the same species as the Asiatic lion and the West African lion. In other words, the Barbary lion was the genetic bridge between west Africa, and India. before its extinction, these two populations would have been permanently linked. What does this mean? Well, it is vastly simpler to move lions from one wild place to another than to train and release captive lions. If we can fortify the remaining West African lion populations, perhaps we can also allow some of these animals to be moved to other parts of the Lion range – thereby ensuring their long-term survival.
Lions have been lost from a huge area in Africa. Already extinct in 26 countries in Africa, there are perhaps as few as 15,000 lions left. Furthermore, most of these are in a small handful of reserves.
Between the Selous, Serengeti, Ruaha, Kruger and the greater Kalarhari zambezi transfrontier park are represented perhaps as high as 14,000.
This means that other reserves that still host lion tend to have very small populations with the inherent risks of inbreeding that this brings.
You will notice that on this list of lion ecosystems, none are in west Africa. This is unfortunately not a mistake. Recent analysis of the Genetics of western African lions has proved something that has been suspected for centuries. The west African lion is not the same species as the eastern and southern lion, in fact these populations are relict populations left behind as the Asiatic lion was pushed back into its home in India. In actual fact the “Asiatic lion” or “Indian Lion” once had a huge range that took in much of Europe, north Africa and Asia.
West African lions are heavily endangered with just 400 members remaining. While the west African population of the Asiatic lion is less at risk than the Gir forest population – being spread over 4 unconnected sites, it would be impossible for an epidemic to wipe out the whole population, or indeed some sort of freak flood or other dangerous weather.
It is a huge threat to a species if it is only found in one reserve. This I believe is common sense, and not hard to explain. If all the remaining members of a species live in one place, an unexpected event could wipe out the entire population.
At the current time, there is only one home for the Asiatic lion. this is despite many millions spent to change this situation. For a decade Gir forest has been meant to transfer a handful of lions to Kuno reserve, in order to give them a second home.
Why is this important? We need multiple homes for Asiatic lions. There was recently a huge storm over their one home. It is not unthinkable for the Gir forest to be devastated by something similar.
The government of this part of India has declared exclusive rights to the lions – an absurd claim given these lions once roamed across Asia, north Africa and southern parts of Europe.
It would appear that lions are taking matters into their own hands (or paws). Gir forest has a lion density way too high, which is leading to high mortality from fights between males and infanticide to bring females back into oestrus
Lions are now regularly seen as far away as Madhavpur an area which would take hours to drive to (from Gir national park). They have also created new populations in Girnar, paniya Mitiyala reserves as well as in a whole host of unprotected zones.
One of the areas that the lions have been moving into is Jasdan-Chotila. Lions disappeared from this area about 150 years ago, but the area is still well suited to them. There are various species of prey, and leopards have survived in the area. There are various mitigations that locals would have to make to live comfortably alongside lions. There are also many wells in the area, which will have to have walls built around them, to stop the lions falling in. Lions falling to their deaths have been a significant reason that the Gir lion population has not grown bigger in recent years.
Still this is exciting, though it should force local politicians to look at the health of the lion population as well as their own bottom line as the only place to see Asiatic lions.
South Africa has rather a problem. They have given over a large amount of their country to wildlife conservation, and many of the tourists who visit, come to see the wildlife.
However, South Africa also has an important hunting history. Now, if you go back 50 years the number of buffalo and similar was so high that they could sustain a certain amount of hunting (this cannot be claimed to be sustainable as it reduced populations to their current depressed state, and indeed there are species that it eradicated – for instance the Quagga a type of zebra). However, nowadays there are not these huge populations.
Most hunting reserves are relatively small, and therefore the number of animals that can be naturally hunted each year is also small. It is true that many of these places can sell hunts of antelope and similar, but the majority of big game hunters want to shoot one of the big five (lion leopard elephant buffalo rhino).
The result of this is the hideous industry of canned lion hunts.
The asiatic lion only continues to exist in the For national park. When this area was first protected, the lion population had fallen very low, some saying a matter of only a couple of dozen remaining members. In the 50 or so years since the population has multiplied well. Now are said to be around 400, spread across 1 contiguous protected area (under a number of different authorities – Gir Sanctuary, Gir National Park, Pania Sanctuary, Mitiyala Sanctuary, and Girnar Sanctuary. The first 3 form the core, with the others lying within dispersal range.
The problem is at these three have a combined area of about 561 square miles, which is an incredibly high density for lions.
While increasing amounts of land is given to wildlife in southern Africa and the lion population grows, unfortunately in east and central Africa the opposite is happening.
Unfortunately in west and central Africa, the lions (many of these lions are orphaned relict populations of the Asiatic lion, and therefore highly important) tend to live in fragmented and small groups cut off from others of their kind. If humans can reconnect these populations then the dramatic decline that is expected in this region, could be halted.