Thursday, June 05, 2008

National Geographic Jun-2001 Article; Extinction stalks the Asiatic lion, a regal subspecies now crowded into a single sanctuary in India's Gir Forest.


Extinction stalks the Asiatic lion, a regal subspecies now crowded into a single sanctuary in India’s Gir Forest.

National Geographic Jun-2001, Article and Photographs by Mattias Klum


Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Most people think of lions as strictly African beasts, but only because they’ve been killed off almost everywhere else. Ten thousand years ago lions spanned vast sections of the globe, and so did people, who—as they multiplied and organized—put pressure on competitors at the top of the food chain. Now lions hold only a small fraction of their former habitat, and Asiatic lions, a subspecies that split from African lions perhaps 100,000 years ago, hang on to an almost impossibly small slice of their former domain.

India is the proud steward of these 300 or so lions, which live primarily in a 560-square-mile (1,450-square-kilometer) sanctuary. It took me a year and a half to get a permit to explore the entire Gir Forest—and no time at all to see why these lions became symbols of royalty and greatness. A tiger will slink through the forest unseen, but a lion stands its ground, curious and unafraid—lionhearted. Though they told me in subtle ways when I got too close, Gir’s lions allowed me unique glimpses into their lives during my three months in the forest. It’s odd to think that they are threatened by extinction; Gir has as many lions as it can hold—too many, in fact. With territory in short supply, lions prowl the periphery of the forest and even leave it altogether, often clashing with people. That’s one reason India is creating a second sanctuary. There are other pressing reasons: outbreaks of disease or natural disasters. In 1994 canine distemper killed more than a third of Africa’s Serengeti lions—a thousand animals—a fate that could easily befall Gir’s cats. These lions, saved by a prince at the turn of the 20th century, are especially vulnerable to disease because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals. “If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually look like identical twins,” says Stephen O’Brien, a geneticist who has studied them. Yet the perils are hidden, and you wouldn’t suspect them by watching these lords of the forest. The lions exude vitality, and no small measure of charm.

Though the gentle intimacy of play vanishes when it’s time to eat, meals in Gir are not necessarily frenzied affairs. For a mother and cub sharing a deer, or a young male relishing an antelope, there’s no need to fight for a cut of the kill. Prey animals are generally smaller in Gir than they are in Africa, and hunting groups tend to be smaller as well. The lions themselves aren’t as big as African lions, and they have shorter manes and a long fold of skin on their undersides that many lions in Africa don’t have.       . . . . .

Perpetuating the species is no easy work—lions copulate about 500 times for every litter produced. Once a female entices a male to mate, it’s over quickly, and the female may discourage dawdling by growling and clawing at her mate. The process repeats after a brief interlude. Because of the Asiatic lions’ small gene pool, 70 to 80 percent of sperm is deformed—a precarious ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in zoos. Adhering to a strict breeding program, European zoos have boosted their Asiatic lion count to almost 60.                        . . . . .

Traumatized by a lion attack that has killed one of his buffalo and wounded another, a Maldhari boy adds his chapter to the intertwined history shared by Gir’s lions and its people. More than 2,000 Maldharis live within the sanctuary, and their livestock make up a third of the lions’ diet. After severe droughts even attacks on people become common as lions enter villages to find food. Even so, the Maldharis exalt the lion in lore and song, and a cat dashing through a clearing is as likely to evoke joy as fear. The state government of Gujarat has persuaded hundreds of families to leave the sanctuary, but those who remain are reluctant to relocate.   . . . . .

Belly full of meat, a lioness laps from a precious creek in a dry teak forest. When it comes time to count Gir’s lions every five years or so, water holes and livestock are the main bait. A recent census found that 40 lions had wandered off the overcrowded sanctuary—a problem since farms and factories surround the park. There are plans to move some of Gir’s lions to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary more than 500 miles away, but finding other suitable homes might be difficult. In populous India protected areas with enough land and prey for large cats are rare.     . . . . .

A mother and cub safely ensconced in the forest have no idea of the tenuousness of their birth-right. Greece saw its last lion shortly after the birth of Christ—about five centuries after it minted this coin. The Asiatic lion’s range shrank steadily until the 19th century, when guns all but wiped out the population.

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