In celebration of World Lion Day (August 10th), here’s a motivational and uplifting conservation story of Asiatic Lions in west India’s Gir National Park:
The Asiatic lion once roamed vast swaths of the Middle East and Asia, but indiscriminate hunting and killing to protect livestock led to their mass slaughter. By the late 1800s, as few as 10 of the animals remained on Earth.
Their last refuge became western India’s Gir National Park, a protected area where these endangered animals are now on an upward trend. According to a 2015 census, a little more than 500 lions—the world’s total wild population—live in Gir, up from 411 in 2010. In comparison, about 20,000 African lions remain in the wild. (See a map of the lion’s decline worldwide.)
Like their African kin, Asiatic lions live in prides, and the females do most of the hunting, taking down prey like antelope. They look much like their cousins, too, though they tend to be slightly smaller than African lions and live in forests, instead of open grasslands. They also have a distinctive fold of skin on their stomachs, and their manes are less plush.
“There’s so few conservation success stories when it comes to carnivores,” says Gitanjali Bhattacharya, program manager at the Zoological Society of London’s South and Central Asia programs. “And the Asiatic lion, for me, it’s really a story of hope. Because you’ve got a population that’s growing, a community that’s supportive, and the lion is taking back its former range.”
That success can be attributed to the efforts of conservation groups and local communities’ dedication to protecting the animals. (Read more about National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.)
The people who live around Gir have a deep respect for the lions and patrol the jungle looking for poachers—though illegal hunting hasn’t been a problem for a long time, says Bhattacharya.
They’re “being right on top of it, monitoring threats,” she says.
For them, “the lion is beyond an endangered species,” Bhushan Pandya, member of the Gujarat State Board for Wildlife and Asiatic lion conservationist, says by email. “Lion, the king of jungle, is the symbol of strength and power.”
The predator is also a religious icon in Hinduism; the goddess Durga rides a lion, and the god Narsimha is half lion. (See National Geographic’s most stunning pictures of big cats.)
Continue reading the full story and watch an entertaining video here.