Asiatic lion living on the edge

Coming from a common bloodline of 20-odd animals in 1901, the 300 Asiatic lions in the Gir forests today risk being wiped out altogether in a single epidemic, writes Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

Moments before the crack of dawn when silence is all pervasive, the first roar of the Asiatic lion evokes unique primordial emotions of awe, deep down from the pit of stomach. As it happens on a lucky day when one or more lions reciprocate, singly or in tandem, that ensuing crescendo of lion roars is a sublime experience of once in a lifetime. Though the sound fades away but its lingering auditory resonance in the surrounding ether remain imprinted in memory forever.

The male differs from the female in his distinctive golden-blonde mane on the head and neck
The male differs from the female in
his distinctive golden-blonde mane on
the head and neck

A lioness guards the cubs in infancy, who are born blind and remain vulnerable for nearly three months
A lioness guards the cubs in infancy, who are born blind and remain vulnerable for nearly three months 

There was a time when the Asiatic lion, as the name implies, was a common occurrence in Turkey, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Baluchistan, northern Pakistan and from north-west India through the Gangetic plain, up to Jharkhand and Orissa. Sadly, by 1901, all that remained of the Asiatic lion in the world was just one "pride" of less than 25 animals confined to the Gir Forests of Junagadh in Gujarat.

That today the lion population in India numbers above 300 is a tribute to the far-sightedness of the Nawabs of Junagadh for their unconditional commitment to prevent poaching and impose implicitly an absolute ban on hunting of the lion. The seeds of this concept were sown by Lord Curzon in 1902. Fifty years later, Jawaharlal Nehru launched the Asiatic Lion Conservation National Action Plan. This timely intervention ultimately succeeded in creating conditions conducive to the survival of the lion in its last niche on earth in the Gir forests of Saurashtra.

The Asiatic lion has a close-cropped coat, off-white on the belly, uniformly tawny or dark brown on the upper body and flanks and a long naked tail ending in a prominent tuft of hair, of darker shade than over its body. The male differs from the female in his distinctive golden-blonde mane on the head and neck, which in some cases turns jet black with age. The male also has a tuft of hair of similar colour on its elbows.

Both sexes have a thick fold of skin running the length of the belly in the middle. Their cubs, an average of three per litter, have thick off-white pelts with faint grey spots. The cubs are born blind and remain vulnerable for nearly three months. Perhaps this is the reason why lions have evolved a close-knit social group called the Pride, comprising about 15 animals. Each pride usually has one to two adult males, two to five adult females and five to seven young of varying ages.

All female members of the pride share equally in the care and raising of the young, much as elephants do. Cubs spend a great deal of time in playful pranks, grappling and swatting one another or spanking the hindquarters of a passing-by lioness. Besides guarding the cubs in infancy, a lioness is a caring mother, often indulging her cubs in play; she would twitch their tail tuft enticing the cubs to grab it but jerk it out of the cubsí grasp in the nick of time. The male, on the other hand, protects the pride from intruders and predators; his thick mane provides armour against fatal injuries during combat.

A factor of animal biology being ignored by us nonchalantly is that the entire surviving population has sprung from one bloodline of the 20-odd animals in 1901. Implicit in this is the potential hazard that they can be wiped out altogether in a single epidemic.

So preparations were set afoot in 1995 to create a viable second home in MP, (stocked with adequate prey-base) at Kuno, a stronghold of the lions till the 1860s. However, all efforts to trans-locate a breeding nucleus of two lions and six lionesses from the Gir have been scuttled by the Chief Ministers of Gujarat ever since 2000.

It remains to be seen whether wisdom and compassion will ultimately dawn on India of the 21st century that will aid the Asiatic lion to keep up the steady growth of population and so reclaim its lost home-range all over the sub-continent.

We do not know why emperor Ashoka installed the lion atop the pillars bearing his edicts in 3 BC. Maybe he chanced upon a male lion standing on a mound, watching over a vast plain stretching to the far distant horizon, conveying a rare picture of sovereign self-assurance, feudal overlordship and pride with dignity; in essence, the king of all he surveys. Over time, the stylised lion of Ashoka pillar also became the symbol of the sovereign, socialist republic of India in 1952. Thus, it has become a tacit article of faith that the Asiatic lion shall have a permanent home in India for all times to come. So we may now with justifiable pride call it, The Indian Lion.