Lions in India

Until a few months ago, I had thought that lions had always existed only in Africa. But it turns out that not only were lions once roaming parts of Asia, there are Asiatic lions in India even today. Apparently there had once been lions all across the land connections between Africa and India, which makes sense once you think about it since there is no reason why they should have limited their territory unless forced to do so by climate or terrain. This explains why lion metaphors can be found in places like Afghanistan where the political and military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was called ‘the Lion of Panjshir’.

But over time the lions in the intervening regions went extinct, leaving just the ones at the two ends of Africa and India. In 2000, the numbers of Asiatic lions went so low that they were placed on the ‘critically endangered’ list but they recovered slightly by 2008 and are now considered to be just ‘endangered’ which is still not good. The numbers are still small enough that authorities are concerned about the deaths of 11 of the animals that they discovered recently.

It remains unclear but officials mainly suspect that a group of lions from a different area killed them in a battle over territory.

They are fairly certain that this is what happened to at least eight of the 11, including three cubs.

Gujarat is the world’s last abode of Asiatic lions, who once prowled a vast region between India and the Middle East.

There are 523 lions living in a 22,000 sq km area across eight districts – including the Gir sanctuary, where the 11 dead lions were found – according to the last census done in 2015.

At least 200 of these lions are living in unprotected areas outside sanctuaries.

The heavily protected Gir sanctuary, say experts, has a “carrying capacity” – an ecosystem’s ability to support a specific and often fixed number of species – of 300 lions.

Since the numbers of lions are now exceeding the carrying capacity of the reserve, the government is seeking to expand their territory.

Wildlife officials say most of the lions outside the sanctuary live in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts. In June, the government announced that 109 sq km of area in these two districts would be reserved as a new sanctuary for lions.

India’s Supreme Court had ruled in 2013 that Gujarat needed to relocate some of its lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state to avoid the possibility of disease or some other disaster wiping out the entire population.

However, the move has been delayed as studies on prey base, vegetation cover and local weather of the new habitat in Madhya Pradesh have not yet been completed.

As is often the case, there is conflict between these animals and the local community as the lions spread outside their current preserve.

Lions are now routinely spotted on private farms and near village homes.

A pride of 18 lions was captured in the region after three people were killed between April and May 2016.

A bulk of the government’s budget for lions is spent on compensating farmers whose cattle have been killed by lions and on removing the big cats from farms.

It is very creditable that the government of India is taking such a humane attitude towards these big cats while also protecting the lives and property of the people who live in proximity with their habitat. It is a very delicate balancing act.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    The common Indian name Singh derives from the Sanskrit word for lion. Incidentally, the Sanskrit word for tiger, vyāghrá, may be the source of the erectile dysfunction drug brand name.

  2. Kreator says

    Another feline which surprisingly occupied a much larger range in the not so distant past is the jaguar. Around the time when the Spaniards first arrived to the continent, jaguars could be found from the southern United States to as far south as Patagonia in Argentina (PICTURE: current range in red, former range in pink). The Mapuches already had a particular word for the jaguar (Nahuel, which is sometimes used as a name), despite living away from its usual habitat.

  3. Heidi Nemeth says

    Lions were native to Europe, too, including Great Britain until humans killed them off. You know all those medieval family crests and shields with upright lions? It would be odd if they were depictions of African lions, especially considering that the interior of Africa was basically unknown to Europeans until the late 1800’s. The concept of the lion being regarded as the king of beasts is old enough to stem from when lions still roamed in Europe and the Middle East.
    Yes, humans killed off the megafauna of all the continents. We just haven’t yet completed the job in Africa (nor quite in Asia) where the animals evolved with us and understand what a danger we are.

  4. lumipuna says

    Heidi Nemeth -- Europeans of antiquity and middle ages knew the lion from Middle East and North Africa, where they disappeared around 19th century. The lion also lived in Balkans until Roman times, and earlier in Holocene there were cave lions and leopards in Southern Europe. IDK when any lions last lived in Britain, probably ice age?

  5. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#2,

    Actually my name in Tamil does mean lion. The evidence for the existence of lions in Sri Lanka is very tenuous, with just one possible fossilized tooth as evidence.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano @8: Sanskrit loan words found their way quite far from their source. So, Singapore comes from the Sanskrit “city of the lion”, even though there were never lions in the Malay peninsula.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    Two reasons why I’ve known pretty much since I could read that there were Asiatic lions:
    1. My nearest zoo has them.
    2. When I was growing up PG Tips (I think) gave away wildlife information cards in packets of tea. You could collect them and stick them in a book. Each card had info on the back and a photo of the animal on the front. I can still see in my mind’s eye the photos of Przewalski’s horse and the Asiatic lion. I can also see the quite crude, cartoonish drawing of the aye-aye, since at that time there were apparently simply no photos of the thing. Whatever happened to the idea of pretty much every consumer transaction, even just buying tea, being an opportunity for education?

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