Principal Threats
The close proximity of predators, livestock and humans in the Gir Forest gives rise to a number of management problems which threaten the Asiatic lions. There are four large temples located in the Gir Forest, which is cut by five major roads and a railroad, so that a considerable volume of people moves through the protected area. Lopping of tree branches for firewood is widespread, and is having a devastating effect, especially upon riverine forest, which is prime habitat for lionesses with cubs during the dry season (Ravi Chellam 1993). Lions have been preying on cattle ever since they first moved into the area, but there are indications that peoples’ tolerance of lions is coming to an end. The government’s livestock loss compensation scheme is cumbersome and unrealistic (Joslin 1984, Ravi Chellam and Johnsingh 1993a), and there are recent reports of villagers killing lions.

Even more alarming, the lions which have long been famed for their docility toward humans have recently begun to attack people, mainly during sorties outside the sanctuary. Saberwal (1990) has documented 81 attacks resulting in 16 deaths from Jan 1988-Apr 1990, as compared to 65 attacks resulting in eight deaths over the previous decade. He suggested that the spate of attacks was attributable to reduced availability of livestock prey due to the effects of a severe drought in 1987-88, and noted that the attacks were clustered near

  1. high human population density and
  2. sites where lions were baited until 1987 to show them to tourists.

Lions in these areas, familiar with large groups of people, would have been less sensitive to human threats, and thus more likely to have become involved in conflicts over livestock. Ravi Chellam and Johnsingh (1993a) stress that greater involvement of the impoverished Maldharis and villagers in and around the Gir in the management of the protected area is a matter of highest priority.

The Asiatic lion currently exists as a single population, and is thus vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events, such as an epidemic or large forest fire. However, it is also a large, healthy population, and a recent Population and Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA) workshop in India (Walker 1994) predicted a zero per cent chance of extinction over the next 100 years, based on their population model.

Nonetheless, establishment of at least one other wild population is advisable for population safety, for maximizing genetic diversity, and in terms of ecology (re-establishing the lion as a component of the fauna in its former range). The Asiatic lion PHVA (Walker 1994) reviewed several potential translocation sites for suitability in terms of habitat and prey base, and selected the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Madhya Pradesh as the most promising (this and other potential sites are shown as stars on the distribution map). The size of the protected area is currently only 345 km2, but it could be expanded to approximately 2,000 km2 if adjacent forest were incorporated. Human disturbance is considered to be relatively low -- although there are still 13,000 people and 16,000 livestock in the proposed area. Moving them out, as was done in several Tiger Reserves, would no doubt be extremely difficult. Moreover, there is considerable hostility to wildlife in rural India, and moving lions into an area where people have had no experience of them for generations is risky, both for the lions themselves and for the larger cause of big cat conservation. A previous attempt to establish a second population in the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Uttar Pradesh appeared to be succeeding, as the population grew from three to 11 animals, but then the lions disappeared, presumably shot or poisoned (Negi 1969).

Theoretically, the captive population of Asiatic lions can be considered to represent a second population. A Species Survival Plan (SSP) was established by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) to manage the >200 Asiatic lions held by western zoos. However, not only is this SSP-managed population entirely descended from five founder animals, but two of the founders were African or African-Asian hybrids, as demonstrated by genetic studies and morphological characteristics (O’Brien et al. 1987c). Only three individuals in North American zoos are of pure bloodline (Wildt et al. 1992a). The total global captive population of pure Asiatic lions is believed to be 82, of which 23 are held outside of India (Walker 1994: 21). The Government of India is currently considering offering problem wild lions to western zoos as new founders. The AZA’s Felid Taxon Action Group has recommended that hybrid lions may continue to be bred to monitor their vigour until such time as space is required for pure Asiatic lions. It also called for collection of germ plasm from wild animals, which could be used to infuse genetic diversity into the captive population (Wildt et al. 1992a: 80).

© 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union

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