The rare Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is paler and shaggier than its more common African cousin, with longer tail tassels, more prominent elbow tufts and a larger belly fold. Probably introduced to India from Persia, the lions were widespread in the Indo-Gangetic plains at the time of the Buddha. In 300 BC, Kautilya, the minister of Chandragupta Maurya, offered them protection by declaring certain areas abharaya aranyas, “forests free from fear”. Later, in his rock-inscribed edicts, Ashoka admonished those who hunted the majestic animals.
The lion was favourite game for India’s nineteenth-century rulers and by 1913, not long after it had been declared a protected species by the nawab of Junagadh, its population was reduced to twenty. Since then, Gir Forest has been recognized as a sanctuary (1969), and a national park (1975), while the number of lions has swelled to more than five hundred. However, they remain under serious threat from poachers, while illegal timber-felling in the forest is still common. Three major roads and a railway line bisect the park, which also has four temples that attract more than 84,000 pilgrims each year; all this produces noise, pollution and littering. Moreover, when lions stray from the sanctuary – a common occurrence – there have been attacks on humans and livestock. Plans, meanwhile, to create another reserve outside Gujarat, possibly in Madhya Pradesh – to reduce the risk of the cats being wiped out by a particularly contagious disease or infection – continue to be resisted (for political rather than conservation reasons) by the state government. For more information, see asiaticlion.org.