Saturday, September 8, 2007

OPINION - Do Asiatic Lions Still Roar in Gir?

September 07, 2007
Harold Bergsma
It is hard to believe we did this! We pitched a tent in an isolated area of a game reserve in lion country. I was awakened by the terrifying sound of a lion roaring. I was sure it was in the tent with us. There are few things as awe inspiring, or should I say exciting as hearing a lion roar in the wild. It is an instant adrenaline high. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.

Another time I was strolling along on a visit to the Lahore Zoo and stood bored and feeling sad for the scraggly, thin, lethargic 'Asiatic' lion there. He must have picked up on my intense stare and started to roar. In seconds I was surrounded by kids and their families all looking wide-eyed. I could understand how lady lions would be impressed.

The Maldharis who live in the Gir Forest in small gatherings called, 'ness' listen to the roars of the majestic Asiatic Lion almost on a daily basis. The lions regularly eat their cattle too. Perhaps they are used to the roars. It's a jungle out there! But the Maldharis don't want to leave the Gir reserve which they consider home, a place to graze their cattle. Dionne Bunsha's article, "A kingdom too small" presents an excellent review of the present, sad condition of the Asiatic Lion, the last remnant of a once large and widely distributed sub-species. Truly, their kingdom is too small, and the kings are too few, now some three hundred individuals. But it was not always this way. Once upon a time, the Asiatic lion really was the lion king.

The Asian Lion roamed a vast territory ranging from Greece through the Middle East and part of North Africa all the way down to India. This lion has been the focus of literature, the inspiration of religious texts, the model for motifs of entire kingdoms and the inspiration of poets and religious leaders in the middle east, south east Asia and even China. I often wondered where the Chinese got the model for their strange lions, you remember, the ones that stand guarding gates; stone lions poised menacingly at leading restaurants. The male Chinese lion is represented by a stylized lion with a ball under its foot; the female lion with a lion cub under her foot. Legend has it that the female's nipples are on her feet. How in the world did Chinese artists come to depict the lion that way? The answer of course; the Indian or Asiatic lion. Buddhists regard the lion as a protector of truth, a defender against evil. But, the Chinese had no lions of their own, you say. Correct, but the Silk Road, and the advance of Buddhism carried the images from India where the real lion roamed. The King of Parthia, in 87 AD gave China a gift of lions as China had none of its own.

In Indian art history lions are shown supporting Buddha's throne. Those lions are more realistic than the Chinese depiction of lions. On India's Republic Day the streets of the capital are filled with lion images. TheAshoka pillar, a symbol of the state of India, is surmounted by four lions with manes crouching back to back.

The word Singh, derived from the Sanskrit simha is a name that rings out in Indian history. It rings a note of recognition in other parts of the world. In fact the word was on CNN yesterday. Bearded men with turbans were being stopped in American airports and being requested to remove their turbans. It is hard to pat down certain areas. (I wondered about the Kachk, Kara or Kirpan that are traditionally worn by many, which are made of metal?) Many variations of the name meaning lion appear. Singh! Sinhagiri, (lion of the rock) Sinh, Simha, or in Gujarati, sawaj. I knew one other name for the Asian lion as I grew up and I think it is the best one by far, babbar sher; it has a princely ring to it that Rajas liked; Bir Narsing Kunwar (Nepal 1816), and later Shumsher Jang-Bahadur Rana. Kipling put the Tiger and the Leopard in the minds of his readers, worldwide, with the names of two other cool cats, Bagheera and Sher Khan. The Persians would smile, knowing that the name originated with them, shir. But the Persians did not have a monopoly on giving the lion a name. The Greek, leon sounds familiar, as does the Roman leo. The Lion King shamelessly picked up on it all and made a killing.

The Asiatic leo was the emotional experience of folks living around the Mediterranean and the Middle East throughout recorded history. What images are conjured up when you hear the words 'Lion of Judah' or 'Daniel in the Lions' Den' 'Richard the Lion-Hearted' or 'Bishan Bedi, lion-hearted cricketer'? How many great Indian leaders carried the name Singh?

It becomes an emotional journey to read of the historical distribution of the Asiatic Lion, 'last know lion killed in Tunisia in 1891' 'last known lion in Turkey killed in 1870' 'last know in Iran in 1942' last know lion in Pakistan killed near Kot Beji in Sind province in 1810' 'fifty lions were killed in the district of Delhi between1856-58'! Twenty five years later Blanford (1891) wrote that in India the lion is on the verge of extinction'. During the British Raj, the gora sahibs would engage in shikar, wonderful events hosted by local potentates with the lion in their name, the trophy in their mind. But not only did the Brits kill thousands of animal, so did many Maharajas. Mahesh Rangarajan, a well known historian of ecological change, documents amazing exploits of Indian rulers. One in particular, a certain Sadul Singh, Maharajkumar of Bikaner (1936) kept a Diary for over a quarter of a century recording all his shoots. "Nearly 50,000 head of animals and a further 46,000 game birds fell to his gun. Among these were 33 tigers... and a lone Asiatic lion." (See India's Wildlife History, Mahesh Ranagarajan, Permanent Black, p 160, Rs 250) Hapless animals would be slaughtered and the proud hunters would have their photo taken sitting behind the poor dead lion, or tiger. I have a wonderful old book, still available on, The Last Empire (1855-1911) by Ainslie Embre, in which there is a picture of a bored looking King Edward and a Raja posing behind a tiger. Such pictures were all the rage for those who served in India, as were carpets made of skins of animals, especially lion rugs that had a mounted skull with mouth wide open. As a child I loved to lie on the rug and reach over and put my fingers into the gaping maw and feel the teeth. Honestly.

Soon there were few lions left. Some attempts were made to breed the Asian Lion with the African Lion, to give it a genetic boost, so to speak. It was a bad mistake. Very soon it was discovered that the offspring developed all sorts of problems, including insanity. During one period about 200 of these Asiatic lions were sent to various zoos in different parts of the world as a program to insure the survival of the sub-species. "In the mid 1980s it was found that some Asian lions exported to the USA from the Trivandrum Zoo India, were Asian/African hybrids. Paul Joslin, former assistant director of Chicago's Brookfield Zoo had noticed that many "Asian " lions in US zoos lacked the telltale belly fold. He also noticed an increase in infant mortality which is indicative of inbreeding depression." There is a detailed description of the 'analysis of mitochondrial DNA which showed, that in fact these were hybrids. So the preservation efforts ended in having to sterilize all the breeding males. They will live out their sterile existence and their majestic once sexy roars will now be not much more than an impotent whimpers.

At the present time in Indian zoos, there may be dozens of 'retired' lions who have not been euthanized because of India's official prohibition about killing such animals. There are two categories for euthanasia, active and passive. The passive variety allows animals. Monkeys, dogs, cats and cattle are ignored, get by, survive on their own and eventually die off, or disease decimates a population. But the sterilized and inferior retired lions are a privileged group who enjoy a decent, sterile, segregated life with ample food until their death do us part. Humans, however, can be cruel to each other, kill off each other, kill off unwanted female children, but official policy prohibits such, and hopefully attempts to establish an environment for all life which is one of respect and preservation will prevail. Hopefully there are not many rajas or vast land owners around who still enjoy the shikar and kill off large numbers of game animals.

Now these magnificent lions are confined to a small area, the Gir Forest in Gujarat, some three hundred of them or fewer. Their future hangs in the balance; their fate rests in the hands of scientists and conservationists who seek to preserve them. It is not an easy task. The Asiatic lion in the Gir Forest now enjoys heightened world awareness. The extinction of this fine carnivore would be a world tragedy. This sub-species once roamed widely but was the victim of a number of factors that led to its being protected in a tiny area. What killed off the lions?

1. Human population explosions, increased farming, the cutting of trees and slaughter of game species was a major factor in the rapid decline of these lions. If people and carnivores compete for the same resources, guess who wins.

2. Trophy hunting systematically caused the demise of regional populations of lions. "Fifty lions in the Delhi area!"

3. Superstition and ill founded belief that lion body parts have magical properties resulted in animals being collected for sale to male Chinese people who wanted increased potency and sexual stamina. Lions are sexy creatures that mate as many as thirty times a day so it figures; if you eat certain parts ... It could be called imitative magic.

4. Climate change brings about habitat change, deforestation, desertification, lack of water supplies, all of which kills off the animals.

5. Parasites and insect pests can kill off entire prides of lions. From time to time there is a scourge of biting flies that torment lions so intensely that they have little appetite for game.

6. Anthrax, rabies and other diseases can wipe out animals.

7. Human pollution of environments with drugs, (remember the vultures) toxic wastes which pollute the water, the land and food sources kill off predators.

8. Sub-species and cross species breeding programs can create genetic monsters, infertility and non-viable populations of lions. In-breeding weakens the gene pool.

It is amazing with all that going against them that there are a few Asiatic lions left in the Gir. International conservation bodies and the Indian government are setting up a variety of approaches to preserve, protect and enhance the survival of this lion. It may be working; there may be hope. Lions are leaving the preserve and expanding their own territory. A few have even been reported on distant beaches far from their Gir Forest reserve. Their will to survive, to search for new territory, to establish new colonies are encouraging signs.

There is a sparkling new book about all of this written by an expert with a name to match - The Story of Asia's Lions, by Divyabhanusinh; Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2005. If you don't make it to the Gir Forest, you can imagine the roars as you read his wonderful book. The Asiatic lion still roars and people get goose pimples.

Harold Bergsma has published widely in professional journals, and novels. In 2007, One Way To Pakistan was published and in April of 2007 was awarded the Indie Excellence Award for Multicultural Fiction.


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