This is the story of the magnificent Indian Lion and his most magical kingdom - Gir - in which it resides with all its wonderful denizens. Gir is the last and only home of the critically endangered Asiatic Lion.
Far away in Africa lives the African Lion. When the Indian
land mass separated from Africa, formerly Gondwanaland, the wildlife
divided too and evolved different features as it adapted to the new
environment. In that sense, the Indian and the African Lions are distant
The African Lion appears larger than the Indian Lion because of its large and luxuriant mane. The belly fold on the abdomen (like the fold of skin on the cow's neck) is rarely seen in the African Lion but is prominent in the Indian species. The colour of the skin is much darker than the Indian Lion. In length, the two Lions are roughly the same and their habits similar. Thanks to 'night vision' cameras, it was observed that the African Lion, unlike its Indian counterpart, supplements its diet by feeding on carrion. They are also perpetually at war with the hyenas, their eternal enemies.
The Indian Lion seldom has a full and luxuriant mane, especially on the head. The mane does not fall tassels and prominent tufts of hair on the elbows. With a distinct fold of skin on its belly, the Indian Lion is a predator, who hunts its food and usually does not touch carrion. However, the biggest difference is in their numbers: the Indian Lions number just over 300. While the African Lions total over 50,000 animals.
The earliest Lion like species is known to have appeared
nearly 18 lakh years ago. The Lions as one knows them today evolved around
six lakh years ago and were widely scattered throughout Europe, across
Asia and as far as Alaska. Around 6,000 BC, the Lions are believed to have
entered the Indian subcontinent. Spread across Asia through Syria, Iraq,
Iran and Afghanistan, into parts of the Indian peninsula, the Asiatic Lion
was once widely distributed. References of Lions in the Bible and Greek
mythology point to their wanderings through Palestine and Macedonia.
In India too, the Lions were spread across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. History bears witness to the fact that this majestic animal is so deeply etched in our minds that King Ashoka depicted them on his rock pillars around 300 BC.
World history is replete with conquests and defeats of
kings, but none is more dramatic, tragic and shameful than that of the
jungle king. The reason: 'Shikar' (hunting) and shrinking forests.
Uncontrolled hunting of the Lions by the maharajas, their never ending
stream of guests and their love for this so called sport nearly
exterminated the species.
Also, encroachment on the prime Lion habitat for conversion into agricultural land, resulted in fragmentation and destruction of wildlife habitats. Villages and towns cropped up around, as well as within the forests, bringing along their cattle and multitude of other problems. The forest began to be seen as a revenue generating resource and inroads were made into its pristine confines to harvest wood and mineral resources.
The Lions, along with all other animals, got pushed into ever decreasing corners of fragmented habitats facing a real threat of extinction.
In 1901, the Nawab (King) of Junagadh invited Lord Curzon to
Gir for a hunt. Lord Curzon backed off at the last moment when as if by
providence a letter in a local newspaper criticised the damage a Viceroy's
visit would cause to a species on the verge of extinction.
Wisely, he urged the Nawab to protect the last surviving animals in his territory. The total Lion population was around 20 when the Nawab enforced a ban on hunting. Thus began the first conservation efforts for the continuous well being of the Lions.
Lions are nocturnal animals. Resting during the day and on the prowl by night. The king of the jungle makes the most of the night with its sharp vision, hearing and smell; its stealthy approach on padded paws undetected even on open ground. One of the biggest land carnivores (animal that subsists mainly on the flesh of other animals), males at times exceed nearly 3m (9' to 10' approx.) in length and stand almost 1m (3'-3" approx.) at the shoulder. They can run at speeds of nearly 65 km/h for short distances, and can leap a distance of 8 to 10m easily. So wonderfully designed is this animal and so awesome its ways that whatever it does becomes part of an ongoing folklore.