To almost anyone on Planet Earth, reference to the word “lion” conjures up an image of the ‘King of the Jungle’ and often in the context of a Sub-Saharan African safari. Not everyone has been fortunate enough to travel the African plains, but we all can imagine what it must be like to see lions in open landscapes of the Serengeti.
The lion—the world’s second largest cat—was once one of the world’s most wide-ranging large mammals, just like the much smaller mountain lion ranged throughout much of the land masses of the Western Hemisphere. Like the mountain lion, the Asiatic lion has disappeared from much of its historic range, which was once spread over two continents and a number of Afro-Asian countries.
The ‘King of the Jungle’ is no longer found in North Africa and the nominate subspecies is considered regionally extinct in West Africa by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In India, the lions once abounded western, eastern, northern and central India. So abundant was the lion in the country that during the rebellion of 1857, a single British officer shot as many as 300 of them! As forested areas contracted and their prey-base became depleted, the lions resorted to occasional cattle lifting. Sadly, the poisoning of cattle carcasses by the villagers wiped out entire prides and drove the Asiatic lions to the brink of extinction.
India’s lions were once found in other northwestern and central Indian states, but now the four subpopulations of this remnant feline subspecies exist primarily in one National Park—the Gir Forest. The Gir Forest is a dry deciduous forest, and considered by wildlife authorities to be one of the most important protected ecosystems in all of South Asia.
Only a quarter of the extant Asiatic lion population lives outside the protected Gir Forest, but the subspecies still remains highly imperiled and nearly extinct. The Asiatic lion’s official conservation status has not changed in recent years, despite the fact it has received government protection since 1965.
As per the census carried out in 2010, 411 Asiatic lions were accounted for in the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. This is great news as the population now doubles the number of individuals counted in a 1974.
To further the legacy of this magnificent cat through conservation breeding and also to provide the visitors with an opportunity to view Asiatic Lions from close quarters, the Government of Uttar Pradesh is in the process of developing a lion safari in the city of Etawah. The safari project has been strategically placed such that it is most accessible to India’s suburban residents and tourists alike. It is situated 120 km from Agra, home of the famed Taj Mahal and is also in proximity to other major cities such as Gwalior, Kanpur and Lucknow. It will serve as a fantastic eco-tourism destination for the millions of visitors to Agra.