The Asiatic lion differs in size depending upon the sex. Males can have an average weight between 350 and 420 pounds, while females are smaller weighing between 240 and 260 pounds. One male was recorded to have a body length of 8.8 feet and a weight of 492 pounds, while another male was reported to have a body length of ten feet. This subspecies can vary in color from reddish brown, to tannish grey, to speckled black. The body structure and mane are slightly different from the African lion.
As is typical to lion species, the Asiatic lion lives in prides, although these are smaller than African lions holding only two females. The males of these smaller prides do not socialize as much as those in African lion prides, with the exception of mating and sharing a large kill. The diet of these lions consists of deer, antelope, water buffalo, wild boar, gazelle, and domestic livestock. It is thought that prides are smaller because the species it hunts are smaller, indicating a lack of need for larger prides.
Asiatic lions were once found Europe and this is known from oral reports, art and early history of that area. One pre-literate Greek myth speaks of the Nemean lion, and Herodotus noted that lions existed in the Balkans, although these most likely disappeared from that area and others around AD 80-100. These lions have been seen in Ukrainian art dating to the 4th century BC, being hunted in a range where they were once abundant. This area was the Caucasus, and the only area in the former Soviet Union where lions occurred naturally in historic times. The Asiatic lion also appears in many coats of arms and flags of Asia and Europe, as well as in Hinduism and the Bible. Although this lion is not native to China, Chinese guardian lions are carved in the semblance of it.
There are about 411 Asiatic lion in the Gir Forest National Park, and these live in an area that is 545 square miles. In 1907, it was thought that the Gir Forest population numbered only thirteen individuals, but this is debatable because the population in 1936 numbered 234 individuals. The Asiatic lion once shared a range with the Indian leopard, the bengal tiger, and the Asiatic cheetah. Although these species preferred different habitats, it is thought that the Asiatic lion may have competed for territory and food with the bengal tiger. The big cats in this Indian range suffered from major habitat loss due to human encroachment. In this area, the cats also fell prey to British and local hunters. Other threats include being poisoned, being shocked by crude electric fences, sickness, wild fires, and floods. Because there are over twenty thousand open wells belonging to farmers, lions often fall victim to drowning after falling into the wells.
Although many things threaten the Asiatic lion, one of the biggest threats it faces is a limited gene pool. If the Gir Forest population is truly derived from thirteen individuals, the current population may be the result of inbreeding. However, some experts believe that the low number of individuals was released to the public to discourage hunting of the subspecies, because local and British hunters had already eradicated all other Indian lion species. Data collected from that time showed that the population number was closer to one hundred, instead of thirteen. Inbreeding can cause a number of issues, but a decreased immune system and deformed sperm are among the worst. These problems enhance the problems of an inbreeding cycle. Despite these findings, other studies have shown that the genetic variability of the current population was not caused by inbreeding in past populations.
The Asiatic lion is not only threatened by inbreeding in the wild, but in captivity, it has been found to be interbred with African lions. The captive populations, managed by European and American zoos, were randomly interbred and once this was found, all breeding programs for the Asiatic lion were shut down. In order to reestablish a viable captive population, India began breeding only pure Asiatic lions, which helped the European Endangered Species Programme. The American Species Survival Plan, however, has not received any purebred Asiatic lions to start the breeding process again.
Conservation efforts to save the Asiatic lion also include reintroduction into the wild, where the lions will be placed into the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. This area has been found to hold the most viable habitat for reintroduction, because it is actually a part of the subspecies’ former range. Although the protected area is ready to receive lions from the Gir Forest population, the reintroduction has been put on hold due to the state of Gujarat resisting it. The Indian Supreme Court is currently analyzing the issue. The Asiatic lion appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Endangered.”
Image Caption: Asiatic Lion. Credit: Chrumps/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)