The range of the Asiatic or Gir lion Panthera leo persica formerly stretched across the coastal forests of northern Africa and from northern Greece across south-west Asia to eastern India. The advent of firearms in the region led to their extinction over large areas. By the late 19th century, lions had been eradicated from Turkey. One of the last sightings of a lion in Iran was in 1941.
In India, lions once ranged over most of the continent, but severe hunting by Indian royalty and colonial powers led to a steady and marked decline in their numbers. By the turn of the 19th century, they were confined to the Gir Forest and protected by the Nawab of Junagadh in his private hunting grounds.
Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than African lions. Adult males weigh 160 to 190 kg, while females weigh 110 to 120 kg. The height at the shoulders is about 3.5 ft (110 cm). The maximum recorded total length of a male Asiatic lion is 2.92m (115 inches) including the tail. The most striking morphological character, which is always seen in Asiatic lions, and rarely in African lions, is a longitudinal fold of skin running along its belly. The fur ranges in colour from ruddytawny, heavily speckled with black, to sandy or buff-grey, sometimes with a silvery sheen in certain lights. Males have only moderate mane growth at the top of the head, so that their ears are always visible.
Main article: Lion § Evolution and phylogeny
Fossil remains of Panthera spelaea excavated in the Cromer Stage indicate that it represented a genetically isolated and highly distinct lineage, not closely related to Asiatic lions. Fossil lion remains were found in Pleistocene deposits in West Bengal. A fossil carnassial excavated in the Batadomba Cave indicates that the Sri Lanka lion (P. l. sinhaleyus) inhabited Sri Lanka during the late Pleistocene, and is thought to have become extinct around 39,000 years ago. Deraniyagala described this lion in 1939.
Asiatic (above) and southern African (below) lions. Note the larger tail tuft, sparser mane on the head and prominent fold of skin on the abdomen of the former.
Colour and development of manes in male lions varies between regions, among populations and with age of lions. In general, the Asiatic lion differs from the African lion by a less developed mane. The manes of most lions in ancient Greece and Asia Minor were also less developed and did not extend to below the belly, sides or ulnas. Lions with such smaller manes were also known in the Syrian region, Arabian Peninsula and Egypt.
The Asiatic lion currently exists as a single subpopulation, and is thus vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events, such as an epidemic or large forest fire. There are indications of poaching incidents in recent years, as well as reports that organized poacher gangs have switched attention from local Bengal tigers to the Gujarat lions. There have also been a number of drowning incidents, after lions fell into wells.
Prior to the resettlement of Maldharis, the Gir forest was heavily degraded and used by livestock, which competed with and restricted the population sizes of native ungulates. Various studies reveal tremendous habitat recovery and increases in wild ungulate populations following the resettlement of Maldharis since the 1970s.
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