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Asiatic Lion
Female (Lioness)
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Subspecies: P. l. persica
Trinomial name
Panthera leo persica
Meyer, 1826
Current distribution of the Asiatic Lion in the wild

Leo leo goojratensis (India)
Leo leo persicus (Persia)

The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) or Persian lion or the Indian Lion is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in the Gir Forest of Gujarat, India.[2][3] In 2005, the Gujarat government reported that 359 Asiatic lions were sighted in the Gir forest.[4]

The Asiatic lion is one of the three major big cats found in India, the others being the Bengal tiger and the Indian leopard.[5] The Asiatic lions once ranged from the Mediterranean to the north-eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent, but excessive hunting, water pollution and decline in natural prey reduced their habitat.[6] Historically, Asiatic lions were classified into three kinds – Bengal, Arabian and Persian lions.[7] Asiatic lion are smaller and lighter than their African counterparts, but are equally aggressive. It is sometimes misidentified as the national animal of India, which is in fact the Tiger, Panthera tigris.[8]


Biology and behavior

An Asiatic lioness reclines in Ueno Zoo.

Asiatic lions are similar to African forms, though they have less swollen tympanic bullae, shorter postorbital constriction, and usually have divided infraorbital foramen. The colour ranges from reddish-brown to a highly mottled black to sandy cinnamon grey.[9]

Their size corresponds to that of central African lions. In adult males, the maximum skull length is 330-340 mm, while that of females is 266-277 mm.[9] They reach a weight of 160-190 kg. (n=4) for the males and 110-120 kg. (n=2) for the females.[10] The scientific record for the longest male is of 292 cm,[11] while the maximum height to the shoulders reported is of 107 cm.[12] The Captain Smee hunted a male of 268 cm long, which weight 222.3 kg, excluding the entrails.[11] The largest known wild male, in the hunting records, was exactly 3 m (9.9 ft) in length.[13]

Asiatic lions are highly social animals, living in units called prides. Their lion prides are smaller than those of African lions, with an average of only two females, whereas an African pride has an average of four to six. The Asiatic males are less social and only associate with the pride when mating or on a large kill. It has been suggested that this may be because their prey animals are smaller than those in Africa, requiring fewer hunters to tackle them.[14] Asiatic lions prey predominantly on deer (sambar & chital), antelope (nilgai), gazelle (chinkara), wild boar, water buffalo and livestock.


The Gir Forest National Park of western India has about 359 lions (as of April 2006) which live in a 1,412 km² (558 square miles) sanctuary covered with scrub and open deciduous forest habitats. The population in 1907 was believed to consist of only 13 lions when the Nawab of Junagadh gave them complete protection. This figure however is highly controversial because the first census of lions in the Gir that was conducted in 1936 yielded a result of 234 animals.

Until about 150 to 200 years ago, the Bengal Tiger, along with the Indian leopard, shared most of their habitat, where the Asiatic Lion was found in large parts of west and central India along with the Asiatic Cheetah, now locally extinct in India. However, Asiatic Cheetahs preferred open grasslands, and the Asiatic Lions preferred open forests interspersed with grasslands, which is also home to tigers and leopards. At one time, the Bengal Tiger and Asiatic lion might have competed with each other for food and territory.

These Indian big cats lost most of their open jungle and grassland habitat in India to the rising human population which almost completely converted their entire habitat in the plains of India into farmland. They frequently became targets of local and British colonial hunters.

Lions are poisoned for attacking livestock.[15] Some of the other major threats include floods, fires and epidemics. Their restricted range makes them especially vulnerable.

Nearly 15,000 to 20,000 open wells dug by farmers in the area for irrigation have also acted as traps, which led to many lions drowning.[citation needed] To counteract the problem, suggestions for walls around the wells, as well as, the use of "Drilled Tube wells" have been made.

Farmers on the periphery of the Gir Forest frequently use crude and illegal electrical fences by powering them with high voltage overhead power lines. These are usually intended to protect their crops from Nilgai but lions and other wildlife are also killed.

Habitat decline in the Gir Forest may also be contributed by the presence of nomadic heardsmen known as Maldharis. These communities are vegetarian and do not indulge in poaching, but with an average of 50 cattle (mainly "Gir Cow") per family, overgrazing is a concern.[15] The habitat destruction by the cattle and the firewood requirements of the populace reduces the natural prey base and endangers the lions. The lions are in turn forced by the lack of natural prey to shift to kill cattle and in turn, are targeted by people. Many Maldharis have been relocated outside the park by the forestry to allow the lions a more natural surrounding and more natural prey.[citation needed]

Inbreeding concerns

African (above) and Asiatic (below) lions, as illustrated in Johnsons Book of Nature

The wild population of more than 200 Asiatic Lions has been said to be derived from just 13 individuals, and thus was widely thought to be highly inbred. However, this low figure, quoted from 1910, may have been publicised to discourage lion hunting. Hunting of lions was a popular sport with the British Colonialists and Indian Royalty, and all other lions in India had been exterminated by then. Census data from the time indicates the population was probably closer to 100[16]. Many studies have reported that the inbred populations could be susceptible to diseases due to a weakening immune system, possibly causing their sperm to be deformed, leading to infertility. In earlier studies Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist, had suggested that "If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually would look like identical twins... because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals that was all left at the turn of the 20th century."[17] This makes them especially vulnerable to diseases, and causes 70% to 80% of sperm to be deformed — a ratio that can lead to infertility when lions are further inbred in captivity.

A subsequent study suggested that the low genetic variability may have been a feature of the original population and not a result of inbreeding in recent times. They also show that the variability in immunotypes is close to that of the tiger population and that there are no spermatazoal abnormalities in the current population of Asiatic Lions.[18][19] The results of the study have been questioned due the use of RAPD techniques, which are unsuitable for population genetics research.[20]

Genetic hybridization of captive Asiatic lions and African lions

Until recently, captive Asiatic Lions in Indian zoos were interbred with African Lions, which were confiscated from circuses. Once discovered, this led to the complete shutdown of the European (EEP) and the American endangered species registered breeding programs (SSP) for Asiatic Lions, as the founder animals, the Asiatic lions, originally imported from India were ascertained to be an intraspecific hybrids of African and Asian lions. Since then, India has corrected its mistake and now breeds only pure native Asiatic Lions, and in turn has helped revive the European endangered species registered breeding program (EEP) for Asiatic Lions. However, the American SSP, which completely shutdown in the early 1980s has yet to receive pure bred Asiatic Lions from India, in order to form a new founder population for breeding in zoos on the American continent.[20][21][22][23]


The habitat of the Asiatic lion is very small

For over a decade, effort has been made to establish a second independent population of Asiatic Lions at the Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Wildlife Institute of India researchers confirmed that the Sanctuary is the most promising location to re-establish a free-ranging population of the Asiatic lions, and has certified it as ready to receive its first batch of translocated lions[24] from the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, where they are highly overpopulated. The Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was selected as the reintroduction site for the Asiatic lion because it is located in the former range of the lions before they were hunted into extinction in about 1873.[24] However, the state of Gujarat has been resisting the relocation, since it would make the Gir Sanctuary lose its status as the world's only home of the Asiatic lion. Gujarat has raised a number of objections to the proposal, and the matter is now before the Indian Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Kuno officials are toying with the idea of releasing some captive-bred lions into the wild, after training them in hunting and survival techniques.[citation needed]

Asiatic Lions in Europe and Southwest Asia

Panthera leo persica, sketch by A.M Kamarov (1826)

Lions were once found in Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans. When King Xerxes of Persia advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. Lions are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greece around AD 80-100. The Nemean Lion from Greek Mythology is widely associated with depictions of Heraklis/Hercules in Greek Mythological art.

The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but others consider it a separate subspecies, the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).

Lions were found in the Caucasus until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Union's territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armenia around the year 100 and in Azerbaijan and southwest Russia during the 10th century. The region was also inhabited by the Caspian Tiger and the Persian Leopard apart from Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) introduced by Armenian princes for hunting. The last tiger was shot in 1932 near Prishib village in Talis, Azerbaijan Republic. The principal reasons for the disappearance of these cats was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the wisent, elk, aurochs, tarpan, deer and other ungulates.

Lions remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-19th century when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. The last sighting of a live Asiatic Lion in Iran was in 1941 (between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars province). In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river, Khuzestan province, Iran. There are no subsequent reliable reports from Iran.[25] By the late 19th century the lion had disappeared from Turkey.[26][27]

The Barbary Lion

In 1968, a study of the skulls of the extinct Barbary (North African), extinct Cape, Asiatic, and African lions showed the same skull characteristics - the very narrow bar - that existed in the Barbary and Asiatic lion skulls.[citation needed] This shows that there may have been a close relationship between the lions from Northernmost Africa and Asia. It is also believed that the South European lion that became extinct around AD 80-100, could have represented the connecting link between the North African and Asiatic lions. It is believed that Barbary lions possessed the same belly fold (hidden under their manes) that are seen in the Asian lions today. Some Barbary lions may have been bred with the North African subspecies of Asiatic lion, thus producing hybrids that are bigger or smaller than their parents.

The Asiatic Lion in Mythology and Art

"Bharat Mata" ("Mother India"), National personification of India, depicted with an Asiatic / Indian lion at her side
This is the famous original sandstone sculpted Lion Capital of Ashoka preserved at Sarnath Museum which was originally erected around 250 BCE atop an Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. The angle from which this picture has been taken, minus the inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, has been adopted as the National Emblem of India showing the Horse on the left and the Bull on the right of the Ashoka Chakra in the circular base on which the four Indian / Asiatic lions are standing back to back. On the far side there is an Elephant and a Lion instead. The wheel "Ashoka Chakra" from its base has been placed onto the center of the National Flag of India.
  • Narasimha ("man-lion") (also spelt as Narasingh, Narasinga) is described as an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism and is worshiped as "Lion God" thus Indian or Asiatic Lions which were commonly found throughout most of India in ancient times are considered sacred by all Hindus in India.
  • "Singhāsana (lit., seat of a lion)" is the traditional Sanskrit name for the throne of a Hindu kingdom in India since antiquity.
  • The island nation of Singapore (Singapura) derives its name from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city), which in turn is from the Sanskrit िंसह siṃha and पुर pura.[30] According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatran Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, on alighting the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on shore that his chief minister identified as a lion (Asiatic Lion).[31] Recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the animal seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger.
  • The Asiatic lion is the basis of the lion dances that form part of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, and of similar customs in other Asian countries.
  • Chinese guardian lions: The lion is not indigenous to China however Asiatic lions were found in neighboring India as well as western Tibet. These Asiatic lions[32] found in Indian temples are the model for those depicted in Chinese art. It is thought that Buddhist priests, or possibly traders, brought descriptions to China of sculpted lions guarding the entry to temples. Chinese sculptors then used the description to model "Fo-Lions" ("Fo" 佛 being Chinese for Buddha) temple statues after native dogs (possibly the Tibetan Mastiff) by adding a shaggy mane. Depictions of these "Fo-lions" have been found in Chinese religious art as early as 208 BC.
  • The Tibetan Snow Lion (Tibetan: གངས་སེང་གེ་; Wylie: gangs seng ge) is a mythical animal of Tibet. It symbolizes fearlessness, unconditional cheerfulness, the eastern quadrant and the element of Earth. It is said to range over mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane. Two Snow Lions appear on the Flag of Tibet.
  • A lion-faced dakini also appears in Hinduism as well as Tibetan Buddhism. The Hindu deity is known as "Narasimha" and the Tibetan Buddhist form is known as "Simhamuka" in Sanskrit and Senge Dongma (Wyl. seng ge gdong ma) in Tibetan.[33]
A page from Kelileh o Demneh dated 1429, from Herat, a Persian translation of the ancient Indian Panchatantra (These tales depict characters based on local wild animals from the Jungles of India including the Asiatic / Indian lion) derived from the Arabic version — Kalila wa Dimna — depicts the manipulative jackal-vizier, Dimna, trying to lead his lion-king into war.
Romanesque capital showing Samson and the lion (13th cent.).
  • The Asiatic Lion appears in the 2010 remake of the 1925 film The Lost World.

See also


Cited references

  1. ^ Cat Specialist Group (2000). Panthera leo persica. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2007. Retrieved on 12 August 2008. Database entry includes justification for why this species is of Critically endangerd
  2. ^ Big cats - By Tom Brakefield, Alan Shoemaker
  3. ^ Biodiversity and its conservation in India - By Sharad Singh Negi
  4. ^ Highest-ever lion count at 359 in Gir sanctuary
  5. ^ You Deserve, We Conserve: A Biotechnological Approach to Wildlife Conservation - By M. W. Pandit
  6. ^ Indian wildlife - By Budh Dev Sharma, Tej Kumari
  7. ^ The English Cyclopaedia - edited by Charles Knight
  8. ^ "National Animal". Govt. of India Official website. 
  9. ^ a b V.G Heptner & A.A. Sludskii. Mammals of the Soviet Union, Volume II, Part 2. ISBN 9004088768. 
  10. ^ Nowell K, Jackson P (1996). "Panthera Leo" (PDF). Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN/SSC Cat hi ialist Group. pp. 17–21. ISBN 2-8317-0045-0. 
  11. ^ a b Idem
  12. ^ Sterndale, R. A. 1884. Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon. Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, 540 pp. (See No. 200. Felis leo).[1]
  13. ^ Wood, The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. Sterling Pub Co Inc (1983), ISBN 978-0-85112-235-9
  14. ^ Asiatic lion
  15. ^ a b "The Gir Forest National Park". Momos Travels. Retrieved 2009-10-10. 
  16. ^ The Asiatic Lion Information Centre Accessed January 2007
  17. ^ National Geographic feature
  18. ^ Shivaji,S. , D. Jayaprakash and Suresh B. Patil (1998) Assessment of inbreeding depression in big cats: Testosterone levels and semen analysis. Current science. 75(9):23-30 [2]
  19. ^ Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA), Government of India
  20. ^ a b authors? (1997) "Indians Look At Their Big Cats' Genes", Science, 278: 807 DOI: 10.1126/science.278.5339.807b
  21. ^ Pattabhiraman Shankaranarayanan* and Lalji Singh* year? Mitochondrial DNA sequence divergence among big cats and their hybrids journal?
  22. ^ G.S. Mudur (2004) BEASTLY TALES The Telegraph, Calcutta, India. Published December 26
    African-Asian lion problems were first spotted in the US. It’s the price you pay for playing God. After toying with lion-breeding programmes for years, zoo officials in India are facing a man-made evolutionary disaster.
  23. ^ S.J. O’Brien et al. (1987) "Evidence for African Origins of the Founders of the Asiatic Lion SSP" Zoo Biology.
    The report’s authors used genetic tests to compare the wild population in the Gir park with those in captivity. They have concluded that the captive population is not pure Asiatic. As a result of the O’Brien report, the SSP was discontinued. Asiatic Lion Information Centre Accessed on September 19, 2007
  24. ^ a b A.J.T. Johnsingh (2004) “Is Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary ready to play second home to Asiatic lions?, published in the Newsletter of Wildlife Institute of India (WII) 11 (4)
  25. ^ Guggisberg, C.A.W. (1961). Simba: The Life of the Lion. Howard Timmins, Cape Town. 
  26. ^ Ustay, A.H. (1990). Hunting in Turkey. BBA, Istanbul. 
  27. ^ Asiatic Lion Information Centre. 2001 Past and present distribution of the lion in North Africa and Southwest Asia. Downloaded on 1 June 2006 from [3]
  28. ^ Dr. McCleod, Head of Sikh Studies, Department of South Asian Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  29. ^ Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Volume I
  30. ^ "Singapore". Retrieved 2006-04-14. 
  31. ^ "Early History". Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, Singapore. Retrieved 2006-04-14. 
  32. ^ Where does the Lion come from in ancient Chinese culture? Celebrating with the Lion Dance by B. N. Goswamy, October 6, 2002, The Tribune Newspaper, Chandigarh, India
  33. ^

Other references

  • Cat Specialist Group (2000). Panthera leo ssp. persica. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 11 May 2006. Database entry includes justification for why this subspecies is critically endangered
  • S.M.Nair (English edition); Translated by O. Henry Francis (1999). Endangered Animals of India and their conservation (In Tamil). National Book Trust. 
  • Kaushik, H. 2005. Wire fences death traps for big cats. Times of India, Thursday, October 27, 2005.
  • Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. (compilers and editors) (1996). Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 
  • Chellam, Ravi, and A. J. T. Johnsingh. "Management of Asiatic Lions in the Gir Forest, India" Symp. Zool. Soc. Lond. (1993), No. 65, 409-424.

External links

Simple English

The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion. It survives today only in India, where it is also known as the Indian lion. They once ranged from the Mediterranean to India, covering most of Southwest Asia, and hence it is also known as the Persian lion. The Asiatic lion has a cinnamon colour coat.

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