One of the world’s rarest big cat species has received some much-needed good news this month. According to newly published surveys, the population of endangered Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) has experienced a population boom to a modern-day high of 523. That’s a 27 percent increase over the population of 411 cats during the previous survey five years ago.
Asiatic lions—also known as Gir lions because they live only in and around the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, India—were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century. All of today’s Asiatic lions are descended from just 13 cats, which were protected at the last minute in 1907 by an Indian prince. The cats are the only lion subspecies that lives outside of Africa.
Gir lions continue to face multiple threats despite more than a century of protection. Millions of people live in and around the national park, and the lions often end up in conflict with humans and livestock. They also have been known to fall into wells or get electrocuted on bare-wire, high-power fences. Young lions are also wandering farther out of the park to find their own territories. This dispersal puts the cats outside of the sanctuary’s protection, and they increasingly find themselves being hit by passing cars, trucks or trains. During the past year some have even been observed 100 kilometers outside the park in densely populated human neighborhoods.
All of these threats seem likely to become more common as the number of lions increases. The survey revealed that there are now 109 male lions, 201 females and 213 cubs. Conservationists expect another boom once those cubs reach breeding age themselves.
And therein lies the danger: We’re already losing dozens of these lions per year to human–animal conflict, so what’s going to happen as the population expands even further? The Gujarat government, which places great value on their unique cats, has spent the past several years resisting efforts to move some of them to another state where they could establish a secondary population. Such a translocation would help to ensure that the lions had multiple habitats instead of just the one. It would also protect all of the animals in case a disease or other natural disaster struck Gir.
Undoubtedly the success of the Gir lions comes solely from the hard work of the people of Gujarat, who take great pride in their native lions. Prey levels have increased, thanks to the same protections that benefitted the lions. As such, the lions have enough food, and many other steps have been taken to protect the cats, including building walls around 25,000 wells. But that’s not going to last. The human population also continues to increase and the national park has reached its natural carrying capacity; the forest there simply can’t support many more lions or prey animals.
It’s time for Gujarat to celebrate its success by moving some lions out of Gir. That may rankle people who identify with the animals and the hard work that’s been done to protect them, but really it is the only step left in their decades-long effort to protect these rare but thriving cats.
Photo by Shaunak Modi. Used under Creative Commons license
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