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24.7.09

Gir: there are lions

... and there once were lions throughout the subcontinents of Asia and Europe, in present-day Turkey and Iran, in Egypt and Greece.


Alexander the Great, rumored to have speared a great lion

Where are they now? Well, obviously extinct from those regions. Lion hunting was a sport of choice amongst the wealthy and powerful, such that, as with many large animals of prey, populations already struggling due to lost habitat (lost, of course, to crops and cities) were then speared and shot into oblivion. Now Panthera leo is relegated it to Sub-Saharan Africa and a small, critically endangered population in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in northwestern India.

This small population, bottlenecked 100 years ago, is variant enough from its African counterpart to be distinctly labeled, Panthera leo persica. But looking at these kingly creatures, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.


The Indian lion is counter-intuitive, and not just because it inhabits a tiny remnant of verdant landscape on a generally sere, bedraggled subcontinent. Say the words "Indian lion" to an average Westerner, and that person will imagine you meant to say "Indian tiger." No no, you'll need to repeat, the lion - there's a lion, too, surviving over there. Even in India itself, Panthera leo persica is an obscure, poorly known creature, overshadowed by Panthera tigris tigris. Hindu theology still honors the lion as the steed of the goddess Durga in one of her avatars, and painted lion effigies stand guard atop many shrines. Narasimha, the lion-headed god-man, was an incarnation assumed by Vishnu in order to wreak gory justice on a demon-king. For a while the lion was considered India's national animal. But no longer. Tigers, more widely distributed in the country, more inherently Asia, and also sorely endangered (thought not so sorely as the Indian lion), now have a higher profile. Tigers are lionized.

David Quammen, Monster of God, p.37-8



If not for the inability of the Gir forest to house the number of lions born within it (estimated around 350), they might live contentedly, feeding on its healthy stock of medium-sized prey. But young adult lions seek territory apart from their mothers, and that is lacking, leading many to seek land beyond the forest's borders. Such adventurers are relatively safe if encountered by a Maldhari - a member of the highly traditional herder group. "Insofar as it's possible to make a categorical statement about the private lives of an extraordinary, little-studied group of people, here's one: Maldharis don't own guns.... Part of being a Maldhari, at least at Gir, is coping routinely with lions through the use of caution, bluff, and an occasional kuwadi-thunk on the skull," Quammen explains.

But should a lion venture into other territory, the only solution is to be crated and shipped to captivity, or shot. Returning lions to the National Forest where they cannot be sustained is simply not an option.


photo via krissnature.net


Given the rate these creatures have disappeared from the wild, it is expected that within the next 100-200 years, they simply won't be there anymore.

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