Well, most people think that lions only come from Africa. And you would be forgiven for thinking this because in fact, most lions do come from africa. But this hasn’t always been the case. If we go back 10,000 years we would find that there were lions roaming vast sections of the globe. But now, unfortunately, only very small sections of the lions’ former habitat remain.
My particular interest is Asiatic lions, which are a subspecies of African lions. Q31 It’s almost a hundred thousand years since the Asiatic lions split off and developed as a sub-species. Q32 At one time the Asiatic lion was living as far west as Greece and they were found from then in a band that spread east through various countries of the Middle East, all the way to India. In museums, you can now see Greek coins that have clear images of the Asiatic lion on them. Most of them are dated at around 500 bc. However, Europe saw its last Q33 Asiatic lion roaming free 2,000 years ago. Over the next nineteen hundred years, the numbers of Asiatic lions in the other areas declined steadily, but it was only in the nineteenth century that they disappeared from everywhere but India.
So, how can you tell an Asiatic lion from an African lion, with which you’re probably more familiar? Well, in general, Asiatic lions are not as big as African lions. The colour is more or less the same, but the appearance of the mane is different – that’s the hair around the lion’s face and neck. The Asiatic lion’s mane is noticeably shorter than the African lion’s. Q34 Asiatic lions also have a long fold of skin on their underside, whereas not many African lions have this.
Well, I’d like to talk to you now about the Gir sanctuary in India. That’s where I’ve just come back from. The sanctuary was established specifically to protect the Asiatic lion.
It’s Q35 1,450 square kilometers an area and most of it is forest. There are now around three hundred Asiatic lions in India and almost all of them are in this sanctuary.
But despite living in a sanctuary, which makes them safe from hunters, they still face a number of problems that threaten their survival. One of these is the ever-present danger of Q36 disease. This is what killed more than a third of Africa’s Serengeti lions in 1994, and people are fearful that something similar could happen in the Gir Sanctuary and kill off many of the Asiatic lions there.
India’s lions are particularly vulnerable because they have a limited gene pool. The reason for this is interesting – it’s because all of them are descended from a few dozen that were saved by a Q37 prince who took a particular interest in them. He was very wealthy, and he managed to protect them – otherwise, they’d probably have Q38 died out completely.
When you see the Asiatic lion in India, what you sense is enormous vitality. They’re very impressive beasts and you would never guess that they had this vulnerability when you look at them.
The Asiatic lions don’t have the Gir Sanctuary to themselves, I should add. They actually share it with about two thousand farmers. A significant proportion of the lions’ diet is made up of the livestock of these farmers – goats, chickens, and so on – as much as a third, in fact. And they’ve even been known to Q39 attack humans, especially in times of drought.
One final piece of interesting information – in ancient India one of the greatest tests of Q40 leadership for a man was to fight a lion. Now it seems, in modern India, it will be a great test to see if the lion can be saved. I’m sure this is something that all of you will share concern for too.