In Like A Lion

Just 40 years ago, the Asiatic lion was in big trouble. Less than 200 of the big cats remained, confined to just one population in and around the Gir forest in the state of Gujarat, India. Their habitat was slowly but surely disappearing in the face of expanding farms and livestock populations, which directly competed with native grazers for food.

Today, however, more than 400 lions inhabit the area, and the forest is recovering – along with native grazer numbers. The story, H.S. Singh of the Gujarat Forest Department and Luke Gibson of the National University of Singapore report in Biological Conservation, “may help guide the recovery and conservation of other imperiled predators.” In particular, it “reveals the importance of managing healthy prey populations in order to sustain threatened top predators,” they write.

By the 1960s, Panthera leo persica was found only in the dry, thorny forests and savanna of the Gir and Girnar hill regions. The lions – and some leopards too – traditionally fed on a wide range of native deer, gazelle, antelope and boar. As farmers pressed in on the forests, however, the lions also developed a taste for domestic water buffalo and cows. It eventually became clear, however, that the lion’s days were numbered unless its habitat was protected.

In 1965, Indian officials created the first protected area – the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, which was eventually expanded and became Gir National Park in 1975. Starting in 1972, they also began to move many local farmers, and their livestock, to areas outside the park. In the 1980s, they also created sanctuaries in nearby areas with suitable lion habitat.

The moves have had dramatic results. Forests have rebounded from grazing and logging. Wild grazer populations, meanwhile, have soared 10-fold since 1970, from about 5,600 in 1970 to nearly 65,000 today. That increase in prey helped boost lion numbers from 180 in 1974 to 411 in 2010. At the same time, the lions have shifted their diets: 75% once came from livestock; today, just 25% of the lions’ food comes from the farm. And 25% of the lions now live outside of the Gir forest, mostly in other protected enclaves. The changes have also aided other predators. Leopards and hyena populations have more than doubled in size, for instance.

It’s not clear, however, how much longer the gains can continue. Recently, farming and livestock populations have been growing both within and outside of the Gir forest. That may “limit the potential recovery of wild prey species and consequently the Asiatic lion,” Singh and Gibson note. Banning livestock from protected areas, they add, would enable “continued growth and recovery.” David Malakoff | March 1, 2011

Source: Singh, H., & Gibson, L. (2011). A conservation success story in the otherwise dire megafauna extinction crisis: The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) of Gir forest. Biological Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2011.02.009


Image © Noppons |