Extinction stalks the Asiatic lion, a regal subspecies now crowded into a single sanctuary in
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.
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
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
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
A mother and cub safely ensconced in the forest have no idea of the tenuousness of their birth-right.