The last remaining Asiatic lions in the world have lately been generating a fair bit of news.

These, to be specific, are the lions of the Greater Gir Landscape: a remnant population centered on the Gir Forest in the far western Indian state of Gujarat. The dry woods and scrubland here, set on the Kathiawar (or Saurashtra) Peninsula, served as the final holdout of Panthera leo outside of Africa by the end of the 1800s, and it remains the core of the species’ Asian foothold. 

On the saucier side of things, a viral video shot by Zubin Ashara and tweeted out recently by Wild India dramatically illustrates the prickliness that can define lion romance. It shows a Gir lioness unleashing some bone-rattling roars – and a few claw-punch swipes – at a rather outmatched-looking male lion:

Male and female Asiatic lions of the Greater Gir don’t associate to the same degree as their African counterparts: They typically come together only to court – if you can call that sort of thing "courting." Otherwise, males roam in small coalitions apart from the lioness prides, which may consist of as few as two females.

Then there’s this video posted July 13 by the Gujarat Forest Department, which captures a trio of lionesses swimming across a Gir Forest reservoir:

Lovers’ spats and aquatic feats aside, the big news items on the Asiatic-lion front this year have concerned a recent survey suggesting an encouraging population boost – and, more distressingly, a spate of dozens of lion deaths over the first half of the year.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicated plans to conduct the 2020 census of Greater Gir lions, an effort the Gujarat Forest Department has undertaken every five years for many decades. Instead, the department implemented a 24-hour survey of the population in June, a version of a monthly lion assessment known as Poonam Avlokan, the "full-moon count." 

From this abbreviated, smaller-scale survey – some 1,400 observers took part, significantly less than the normal number, and outside experts weren’t involved to the usual degree – the forest department reckoned the Asiatic lion population at 674, up from 523 counted in the 2015 Lion Census. It also suggested lion distribution in the Greater Gir Landscape had expanded from 22,000 square kilometres to 30,000 square kilometres, and that the recent pattern of growing numbers of lions outside of Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and other reserves – where lion habitat is thought to be mostly saturated – is continuing. More than half of the Greater Gir lions live beyond the boundaries of established protected areas

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the findings on Twitter: "Kudos to the people of Gujarat and all those whose efforts have led to this excellent feat."

However, the methodology used for estimating the numbers of Asiatic lions has been questioned, as a recent editorial in The Hindu summarised. The formal Lion Census uses the "total block count" method, in which observers stationed at water sources within designated survey units tally lions coming in to drink. Meanwhile, in a Poonam Avlokan count, according to The Indian Express, "teams keep moving in their respective territories and make their estimates based on inputs provided by lion trackers and on chance sightings."

A paper published in PLOS ONE this past February by scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India noted the limitations of block counts. "Total counts are rarely possible in a free-ranging population since not all animals are detected and often it is not possible to avoid double counts of the same individuals," the authors wrote. The study explored an alternative method of estimating lion density based on identifying individual cats from their whisker patterns as well as scars and other permanent body patterns.

Lions historically inhabited a great swath of northern India, ranging as far east as Bihar and Odisha and as far south as the Narmada River. India’s lions held great cultural significance (as this exhaustive paper from last year spells out). They’re depicted in ancient cave paintings at Bhimbetka in central India and appear in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu symbology. In Hinduism, for example, the warrior-goddess Durga sometimes rides a lion, and the god Vishnu takes leonine form in the guise of Narasimha. Once the national animal of India, in fact – an honour the Bengal tiger has held since 1973 – the Asiatic lion still appears on the country’s national emblem, modelled after the "Lion Capital of Ashoka."

The National emblem of India modelled after the Lion Capital of Ashoka.

These Indian lions belonged – and, in their much-diminished state, belong – to a northern lineage of lions, the subspecies Panthera leo leo, which once also formerly inhabited the Middle East, southeastern Europe, southwestern Asia, and North Africa (the realm of the "Barbary lion"). This subspecies also includes the threatened lions of West Africa and, by some taxonomic interpretations anyway, those of Central Africa.

A major study of lion evolution published this past May in PNAS suggested Central African lions show some admixture between the northern lion lineage and the southern one, the subspecies Panthera leo melanochaita, to which the more numerous and familiar lions of eastern and southern Africa belong. (The PNAS study suggested those northern and southern lion branches may have diverged roughly 70,000 years ago, but that some genetic flow between them likely took place post-split.)

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the disappearance of lions from most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southwestern Asia, though they apparently persisted in Iran into the 1940s, and the Barbary lion clung on in Algeria into at least the 1950s. They nearly vanished from India, too, in the face of habitat loss and trophy hunting: By the late 1800s, they were gone from the country save for the Kathiawar Peninsula, where their range soon dwindled further to that ultimate refuge of the Gir Forest. It’s thought as few as 20 Asiatic lions may have survived in the early 1900s: a severe population bottleneck they’ve partly "clawed" their way out of, in up-and-down fashion, over more than a century of conservation efforts. 

Amid Gir’s semi-arid teak forests and thornwoods, these last Asiatic lions – besides their habit of roaming in much smaller prides, distinguished from their African kin by a distinctive belly flap and sparser manes on the males – hunt sambar, chital, and, to a significant extent, livestock. 

The male Asiatic lions (left) has a sparser mane than it's African conterpart as well as a prominent belly-fold; the female (right) has a longer sloping snout and side face profile compared to African lionesses. Image © Stotra Chakrabarti

Over the past several decades, lions have increasingly spread out from the Gir Protected Area, reoccupying former territory in the Girnar Hills to the north – where they find refuge in the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary and sometimes cruise city streets – and prowling the agro-pastoral mosaic outside reserves.

Given the human population of these lands is also on the rise, increasing numbers of lions outside parks and sanctuaries may well be setting the stage for more intense conflict with people: more predation on cattle, even occasional attacks on people, and more retaliatory lion killings as a result. 

Many experts believe protecting more lion habitat – including the corridors Greater Gir lions use to move between sub-populations – is essential. YV Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India is one of them, telling The Times of India, "Asiatic lions have a national park without any human presence over only 250 square kilometres as compared to 50 tiger sanctuaries which are spread anywhere between 700 square kilometres and 1,000 square kilometres in area. The government needs to declare at least [an] 1,000-square-kilometre area as a national park for lions to thrive in Gujarat."

A growing population of India’s lions also doesn’t in and of itself counter all the lingering negative impacts of their precipitous historical decline and prolonged geographic isolation. Their "remarkable absence of genetic diversity," the PNAS study noted, "suggests that they could be extremely susceptible to inbreeding depression and genetic erosion, as well as future pathogen outbreaks." 

Inbreeding, for example, is thought to explain the lower testosterone levels and diminished sperm mobility seen in male Indian lions compared with their African counterparts. And epidemics have indeed threatened the recovery of the Greater Gir population. In 2018, canine distemper virus – which notoriously hammered East African lions in the Serengeti ecosystem in 1994 – and the bacterial pathogen babesiosis killed better than two dozen Asiatic lions. 

This year, meanwhile, more than 90 lions have died in Gujarat since January. Some of these deaths have been attributed to the same deadly combo of babesiosis and CDV. On July 16, The Times of India reported the Gujarat Forest Department was working to procure 1,000 doses of CDV vaccine from the U.S. 

Given the heavy human footprint in much of their tiny present range, Asiatic lions face other chronic threat, too. For example, they periodically tumble into open wells – two lion cubs that drowned this way were found in the Junagadh district only on July 1 – and die by train collision on the region’s railroad tracks.

Along with maintaining the corridors between the Greater Gir Landscape’s lion strongholds, conservationists have advocated for establishing another, reintroduced population of Asiatic lions in India. The foremost proposed location is the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh, though the effort to reintroduce lions here has been stalled for decades. (Kuno-Palpur has also been floated as a site for returning cheetahs to India.)

The PNAS study on lion evolution raised the possibility that the gene pool of Asiatic lions could be energised by "outbreeding" with other lions of their subspecies, such as those of West Africa (which have also been floated as a source for restoring the bygone Barbary lion). The authors acknowledged, however, that such an initiative would likely be "politically challenging."

Conserving a big carnivore in the increasingly human-thronged world of the 21st century just about always is.

Top header image: Tomi Tirkkonen, Flickr