National Geographic : 2001 Jun
ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTIAS KLUM Most people think of lions as strictly African beasts, but only because they've been killed off almost everywhere else. Ten thousand years ago lions spanned vast sections of the globe, and so did people, who-as they multi plied and organized-put pressure on competi tors at the top of the food chain. Now lions hold only a small fraction of their former habitat, and Asiatic lions, a sub species that split from African lions perhaps 100,000 years ago, hang on to an almost impossibly small slice of their former domain. India is the proud steward of these 300 or so lions, which live pri marily in a 560-square-mile sanctuary. It took me a year and a half to get a permit to explore the entire Gir Forest-and no time at all to see why these lions became symbols of royalty and greatness. A tiger will slink through the forest unseen, but a lion stands its ground, curious and unafraid-lionhearted. Though they told me in subtle ways when I got too close, Gir's lions allowed me unique glimpses into their lives during my three months in the forest. It's odd to think that they are threatened by extinction; Gir has as many lions as it can hold-too many, in fact. With territory in short supply, lions prowl the periphery of the forest and even leave it altogether, often clashing with people. That's one reason India is creating a second sanctuary. There are other pressing reasons: outbreaks of disease or natural disasters. In 1994 canine distemper killed more than a third of Afri ca's Serengeti lions-a thousand animals-a fate that could easily befall Gir's cats. These lions, saved by a prince at the turn of the 20th century, are especially vulnerable to disease because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals. "If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually look like identical twins," says Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist who has studied them. Yet the perils are hidden, and you wouldn't suspect them by watching these lords of the forest. The lions exude vitality, and no small measure of charm. A mother and cub safely ensconced in the forest have no idea of the tenuous ness of their birth right. Greece saw its last lion shortly after the birth of Christ about five centuries after it minted this coin (left). The Asiatic lion's range shrank steadily until the 19th century, when guns all but wiped out the population. ROYALCOINCABINET, STOCKHOLM,SWEDEN(LEFT) How close is too close when lions are mating? Mattias Klum answers this and other questions in a video inter view at nationalgeographic .com/ngm/0106.