Asiatic Lions have been part of this country even before Prince Gautama attained Buddhahood, before Taj Mahal came into existence and way before the coinage of the word ‘Sovereign’. They hold great importance in our scriptures, temples, and mythologies besides being inscribed in our national emblem, the famous Ashoka’s Pillar of Sarnath. Not many people know this but after independence lion was our national animal before the title was bestowed upon the Bengal tigers in order to save them from the terrible fate of extinction.
History is a testimony to the fact that the whole of Asia was once the realm of Asiatic Lions. From the swathes of Persia in the west to Ashoka’s Magadha in the east, from the Caucasus in the North to the banks of river Narmada in the south all of them have witnessed the valor of these majestic cats at one time.
So, what limited their jurisdiction in Sasan Gir?
It all started in the medieval period when hunting down lions was seen fashionable, entertaining and a way to display one’s strength amongst the blue blood. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the barbarous killings and continuous poaching led to the stark decline of their population in India. It was a period Leonine Holocaust in the history of Wildlife. The Britishers, the Rajas, and the Mughals were equally responsible for such a vicious act. It is said that the British officer George Acland Smith hit the all-time record of shooting three hundred lions near Delhi on the eve of Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Another such incident took place in Lahore where the soldiers of Raja Ranjit Singh was responsible for bayoneting lions in Lahore (then part of India). These are just a few infamous incidents recorded by our wildlife experts in the sea of gruesome actions carried against these vulnerable felines.
It was the Nawabs of Junagadh who first took stock of Asiatic Lions’ precarious situation after the refusal of Lord Curzon to hunt lions in Gir. They completely banned lion hunting in the region which in turn became a huge boost for lion conservation in Gir Forest. The conservation drive took momentum with the diligent approach followed by the government, forest department and other stakeholders and astonishingly also backed by the villagers who took no offense when a lion kills their cattle. In fact, they are extremely proud of them, honored by their presence and mourn their death. With just 20 lions left in the early 20th century today, they are more than 450+ thriving in Gir National Park shifting their conservation status from critically endangered to the rank of endangered species. Gir has set a perfect example of how the sheer determination and right mindset can make a paradigm shift in the dwindling population of birds and mammals in the wild. Even today the forests of India are whispering the glorious stories of lions but only in Gir one can sight their royalty.