Lion species by and large are listed as Vulnerable, which means they are facing “a high risk of extinction in the wild”. The Asiatic Lion (P. l. persica) subspecies which is still listed as Endangered, meaning thereby “facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild” (has improved over the last few years’ IUCN classifications as the population has extended beyond the protected area of the Gir forest (India) and is considered stable).
African lion (Panthera leo), other than P.l. persica, experienced suspected population reduction of around 30 to 50 per cent over more than three decades. It has been listed as Vulnerable by IUCN since 1996. Asiatic lion (P. l. persica) had a widespread historic distribution across southwest Asia, but is now limited to a single population in India’s Gir Forest in the state of Gujrat.
The main threats to lions around the world include:
Habitat loss and conversion of forests to farmlands that has led to a number of populations becoming small and isolated. Indiscriminate killing primarily as a result of retaliatory or pre-emptive killing to protect life and livestock. Prey base depletion. Trophy hunting carried out in a number of sub-Saharan African nations is considered an important management tool for providing financial resource for lion conservation for both governments as well as the local communities, but IUCN (2008 assessment) considers it may pose a management problem for conservation goals.
For Asiatic lions IUCN 2008 reports:
the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) reported 34 lion deaths in 2007, due to poaching, electrocution, falling into open wells, and death by motor vehicle and unknown causes.
African Lion : Population and conservation status
Most lions are now found in eastern and southern Africa, where their numbers are rapidly declining. According to an estimate 16,500 to 47,000 African lions were living in the wild in 2002–2004, down from early 1990s estimates that ranged as high as 100,000 and perhaps 400,000 in 1950. The causes of population decline are not well-understood, and are believed to be irreversible. Habitat loss and conflicts with humans are, however, considered to be the most significant factors. The other factor is geographical isolation of populations, which may lead to inbreeding. This will cause lack of genetic diversity in the population and may give rise to various diseases and other problems. This is the reason that African lions are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), while the Asiatic subspecies is critically endangered. Lion population in the West African region is isolated from the populations of Central Africa, with little or no exchange of breeding individuals. The number of mature individuals in West Africa is estimated by two independent surveys at 850–1,160 (2002/2004). There is difference of opinion over the size of the largest individual population in West Africa: the estimates range from 100 to 400 lions in Burkina Faso’s Arly-Singou ecosystem.
Asiatic Lion reclaiming their lost kingdom
Outside the protected areas of national parks and reserves, the issues arising from lions’ interaction with people and livestock usually results in the killing of the former. India, which is the last refuge of the Asiatic lion also has only one place for these cats — Gir Forest National Park covering about 1,412 km² (558 square miles) in the state of Gujrat in western India. According to 2005 census there were 359 lions in the reserve. This number has risen to 411 (2010 census) in the next five years. This has happened despite the fact that numerous human habitations are close by with the resultant problems between lions, livestock, locals and wildlife officials.
The Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project plans to establish a second independent population of these animals at the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh. It is important to establish a second population to serve as a gene pool for the last surviving Asiatic lions and to help develop and maintain genetic diversity enabling the species to survive.
There are reports that Asiatic lions are now, slowly but surely, extending their areas. The Gir national park and sanctuary is unable to contain the growing population of the lions. As their numbers grow from the count of 411 done in mid-2010, the lion kingdom today is almost one-fifth of Saurashtra (a region in Gujrat).
As many as 114 lions have drifted way beyond the protected area and spread out into other areas of Amreli, Bhavnagar and Junagadh districts. The length of this kingdom, spread across southern Saurashtra, is a whopping 200 km as the crow flies. Having learnt to live close to friendly human habitations, the lion is moving even out of the forest corridors, feeding largely on domestic cattle in villages which had never seen lions before.
The first census in 1968 put the population at 177 lions, all of whom were within the protected zone of Gir sanctuary and national park. Kausik Banerjee, senior research fellow with the Wildlife Institute of India, says, “These areas are not new to the lions. They are only recolonising their past territories.”
HS Singh, Gujarat’s additional principal chief conservator of forests, says, “In 1800, lions were found in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. In 1857, 200-odd lions were hunted in Delhi, India’s national capital, and nearby areas. The Gir National Park and surrounding area can accommodate only around 300 lions, forcing others to move out.” Neighbouring Madhya Pradesh wants some Gir lions relocated to the Kuno Palpur sanctuary. But cramped for space, Gujarat’s lions have themselves decided to wander around and park themselves wherever they wish. Think about it in another way. Earlier, you had to travel nearly 400 km from Ahmedabad to spot a lion. Now, the beast is half the distance away.
29 Asiatic lions died in 8 months
Government of Gujrat (India) had admitted that at least 29 lions, including 10 cubs, have died in the eight months since the census conducted in April 2010. While replying to a question raised in the state legislative assembly in March 2011, it was told that the three-day lion census was held in the state from April 24, 2010 which found 411 lions in Gir and its surrounding areas. However, the government refused to say how many cubs were born after the census and simply said that, “The birth rate and survival rate of lions is more than the death rate. Hence it is estimated that there would be more number of lions, than those reported during the census,” said the government reply.
Of the 411, 97 were lions, 162 lionesses and 152 cubs. Officials however played down the deaths and said this only meant that four animals had died on an average in a month in the last eight months. Past records show an average of 37 lion deaths every year. An official said that in 2007 there were 40 deaths including six by poaching, in 2008 it was 42 and in 2009 there were 30 lion deaths.
However, a senior forest official said that lions were spotted in about 10,500 sq km area right from Girnar hills, coastal area of Bhavnagar and even outside the sanctuary. Officials further said that the government has increased the security cover in the area, initiated new security measures and security staff. Forest officials have also been provided with sophisticated equipment for patrolling in the dense forest areas.
The former popularity of the Barbary lion as a zoo animal has meant that scattered lions in captivity are likely to be descendents of Barbary Lion stock. This includes 12 lions at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, England that have descended from animals owned by the King of Morocco. Another 11 animals believed to be Barbary lions were found in Addis Ababa zoo were descendants of lions owned by Emperor Haile Selassie. WildLink International, in collaboration with Oxford University, launched an ambitious International Barbary Lion Project with the objective of identifying and breeding these animals in captivity for reintroduction into a national park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
Following the detection of decline of lion population in Africa, a number of coordinated efforts involving conservation have been planned in an attempt to overturn this decline. Lions are one species included in the Species Survival Plan, a coordinated endeavor by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to enhance its chances of survival. The plan was initially started in 1982 for the Asiatic lion, but was discontinued when it was discovered that most Asiatic lions in North American zoos were not genetically pure, having been hybridized with African lions. The African lion plan started in 1993, focusing especially on the South African subspecies, although there are difficulties in assessing the genetic diversity of captive lions, since most individuals are of unknown origin, making maintenance of genetic diversity a problem.