8 Aug 2022

THE LAST ASIAN LIONS

Today we celebrate World Lion Day. Long-standing WWF supporter and environmental storyteller David Waterhouse writes to us this month on his encounter with the elusive Asiatic Lion. David was lucky enough to witness several lionesses and cubs, who are part of the last remaining stronghold in all of Asia.

I was sitting in the back of a hired jeep watching an Indian lioness with her two cubs in a dry gully. The family was feeding on the carcass of a Spotted Deer, called ‘Chital’ in India.

The only sounds in the cold of that January morning were made by the lion cubs occasionally and the nearby crows persistently.

The mother lion ignored both the crows’ cawing and us. After decades of fairly effective protection, she had no doubt become more and more accustomed to vehicles and people in her domain.

We were in the Gir Forest, the last substantial tract of dry deciduous woodland in Gujarat, India. It is here, and only here, where anyone can encounter wild lions anywhere in Asia.

The next day, quite close to the sandy track, we came across another lioness, also at a kill, this time with three cubs. It was pleasing to see the evidence of breeding success. We spent more time watching the family pulling apart the deer carcass without any friction between them. After a while, the mother left the cubs feeding and leisurely strolled down the gully, close to our jeep. Totally unconcerned, she stretched out her powerful frame and sharpened her front paws against a tree trunk.

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The lioness sharpening her front claws © David Waterhouse

Further along the track we passed a large herd of Chital, looking resplendent in the dappled light. One big stag was thrashing his antlered head against a thick vine which looped down from the treetops and almost brushed the ground. Suddenly, one of the deer, on the edge of the herd some way off, barked sharply about four times. The whole herd froze and turned their faces, with ‘radar dish’ ears all facing in the same direction. After a minute or so they began to relax and mill around once more.

The lookout hind had most likely spotted a leopard, because if it had been a lion, she would have barked far longer, apparently.

Disappointingly, we saw no male lions. Unlike their African cousins, they only occasionally eat en famille and for some reason, there are more female than male lions in the reserve.

Much of the central, core area of the Gir Forest is a national park where settlement and farms are excluded. The zone surrounding the core is designated as a sanctuary, but grazing of livestock is allowed, as it has been for centuries, and there are some villages within it.

We passed some of these small villages and saw local girls gathering dried cow dung pats into piles ready for the monthly pickup by a truck which takes the precious commodity to sell as fertiliser.

I saw cattle plodding past us under the watchful eye of a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. She carried a wooden switch over her shoulders and seemed quite calm and content despite the proximity of wild lions. I wondered how many western teenagers would seize the opportunity to take on her occupation, even though the risk of lions attacking a human was very low. 

David at the Taj Mahal
David at the Taj Mahal © David Waterhouse

David at the Taj Mahal © David Waterhouse

Years ago, most villages in or near the Gir were resentful of the presence of lions and their tendency to kill livestock. Today, as numbers of deer, wild boar and nilgai have slowly risen to quite high levels once more, the likelihood of attacks on domestic stock has diminished as there is plenty of wild prey once again.  

When I returned to my hotel, I met an American who had once taught Ancient History at a college in New England. He told me that the Asiatic Lion was a favourite motif of Assyrian and Babylonian sculptures. Some had been unearthed from the rubble by archaeologists in the late 1800’s. Darius’s palace walls were adorned with hunting scenes depicting lions leaping on their prey as well as vivid images etched into stone portraying them being hunted down by royals from horseback or chariots.

Back home, I looked up illustrations of such sculptures. One striking example of a Babylonian hunting scene by an unknown sculptor was of a huge lion vomiting in its death throes. A thick arrow protruded from its body as it faced the ground in its agony. One was left wondering whether the artist was expressing sympathy for the beast’s fate, or, as is more likely, praising the monarch’s feat in inflicting a cruel death richly deserved. We will never know.

Ancient writers tell us that lions were once to be found in Greece, up until about 200 BCE. When Xerxes crossed the Hellespont into Thessaly, it is said that his baggage train animals were attacked by lions, during the Greco-Persian War.

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Close encounter with a lioness. © David Waterhouse

The big cats were familiar too to Amos, an Old Testament prophet who was a shepherd. Sometimes, his sheep were taken in ancient Israel. They are also mentioned in the Koran, so they must have been widespread in the Middle East at one time. Incredibly, though long gone from Israel, a farmer troubled by gazelles competing with his sheep and goats by grazing in his fields at night, obtained some lion dung from the Jerusalem Zoo in the early 1960’s and scattered some sparingly around his property. The gazelles kept away. The fear must have been present in their DNA, remarkable considering that lions were wiped out in the Holy Land back in the time of the Crusades.

The Persian poet, Omar Khayyam makes references to wild lions in his verses. They survived in modern Iran up until the 1940s.

In the early nineteenth century, lions were quite widespread and reasonably common across northern India, even around Old Delhi. By 1880, however, they had been completely shot out, except for a few protected ones in a nawab’s private estate in the Gir Forest. In 1900, fewer than a hundred were thought to survive. Despite poaching and overgrazing by cattle, their numbers slowly built up to around two hundred by 1963.

Today, there are thought to be between five and six hundred lions in India, and some are seeking territories outside the national park. There is no room for complacency though, because all it needs is an outbreak of disease like leonine AIDS as has occurred in Africa, a massive forest fire or the rise of the poaching of cubs for the pet market and the population could again crash.

David Waterhouse has been fascinated by wildlife since he was a young boy. He first heard about WWF in 1961 in England. He became a supporter all those years ago and remains a supporter to this day. He intends his support to continue well into the future and has included a gift to WWF in his Will. David hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect what’s left. You too can join us in supporting the future of the world’s wildlife by leaving a gift in your Will.