I’ve been reading a book a fellow biologist suggested called Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, by David Quammen. I love reading. Depending on what’s going on sometimes it may take me a while to finish, but the only time period I’m not reading a book (or two) is when I’m in school. I’m about half way through this book and so far I’m very much enjoying it. Maybe you’d be interested too:
For millennia, lions, tigers, and their man-eating kin have kept our dark, scary forests dark and scary, and their predatory majesty has been the stuff of folklore. But by the year 2150 big predators may only exist on the other side of glass barriers and chain-link fences. Their gradual disappearance is changing the very nature of our existence. We no longer occupy an intermediate position on the food chain; instead we survey it invulnerably from above—so far above that we are in danger of forgetting that we even belong to an ecosystem.
Casting his expert eye over the rapidly diminishing areas of wilderness where predators still reign, the award-winning author of The Song of the Dodo examines the fate of lions in India’s Gir forest, of saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia, of brown bears in the mountains of Romania, and of Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East. In the poignant and troublesome ferocity of these embattled creatures, we recognize something primeval deep within us, something in danger of vanishing forever.
The first of four animals discussed is the lion, but not the lion you’re probably thinking of. What comes to mind when I mention lions? African savanna, perhaps? That’s what I think of. Yet, lions used to be much more widespread than they are now, stretching throughout Africa and into the Middle East, India, and southern Europe (heck, there was a North American lion too, but they went extinct somewhere around 11,000 years ago). Now, African lions have lost much of their habitat, European lions have been hunted to extinction, and the Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) have dwindled to only a few hundred in number and encompass only a small area in India.
Asiatic lions are very similar to African lions. In fact, they are not separate species but subspecies (there are five African lion subspecies). Asiatic lions are just a little smaller than their African counterpart. A characteristic of the Asiatic lion that is common in this subspecies but rare in the African subspecies is a longitudinal fold of skin running along its belly. In males, the top of the mane is short enough to allow their ears to show. Other than that, the differences between these two groups can only be seen by looking at the skull.
These Asiatic lions were common at one point, but their population dwindled sharply due to habitat loss and overhunting. It seems that many royals in the area, from India to Persia and beyond, thought it was some sort of proof of their bravery and grandeur to kill as many lions as possible. The last Persian pride consisted of a female and four cubs. They were killed in 1963. Now it is believed there are less than 450 of these lions, only existing in the Gir region of India. This leaves them extremely vulnerable.
During the dry seasons, when prey is sparse, or there are too many lions for the small bit of protected habitat they’ve been provided (male lions especially will disperse, looking for their own territory), lions venture out of the Gir Forest National Park. It is outside this area where they encounter a large population of humans and their slow cattle. As one might expect, this leads to human-lion conflict such as attacks on humans or their cattle, which in turn makes the lion prey when the humans retaliate.
Inside the Park perimeter lions still have human/cattle conflicts. Within the Park exist a group called the Maldhari, pastoralists that either live within the Park or drive their animals into it in the morning and out at night in order to graze. These men normally carry only sticks to defend themselves and their animals, but attacks on humans are far less common within the Park than outside of it. At night cattle are left in enclosed areas. Traditionally these enclosures are made out of thorny wood, but the lions and other animals sometimes manage to get into these. Certain tribesmen have been given more modern materials to better safeguard their livelihoods. However, within the Park there is another smaller area that is set aside only for the wild animals, where not even the Maldhari are allowed to venture.
This subspecies of lion would have been completely extinct already if not for India, which managed to protect the last dozen or so individuals back in the early 1900s. Currently they are fully protected in India, meaning there is no hunting of lions in any circumstances. The government has created a system of compensation for people that lose cattle to lions in an effort to reduce retaliations, but many claim this compensation is lacking. Still, as of 2010 there were 411 Asiatic lions, with a whole quarter of them living outside of Gir.