Fortunately, the Gir lion is thriving in Gujarat.
The unusual sight of eight lions strolling on the streets of Junagadh town are something of a reminder of what the subcontinent must have been like when the big cats roamed all over. Tommyknocker, a Wikimedia user, took information from The African Lion Environmental Research Trust as well as the Gir data to put together this map comparing the historic distribution of lions to the range that they currently roam in.
The results are stark.
The map doesn't delineate between the Asiatic and African lions, but it is believed that the habitat of the cats now found only in Gir once extended as far as North Africa and much of West Asia. Certainly the bits of the map that extend up to Turkey and Greece are a reference to the same animal that is today confined to Gujarat.
Most conservationists believe that the advent of guns was responsible for extinction of the Asiatic lion from much of its territory, with the last sighting in Turkey going as far back as the 19th century. Iran saw its last specimen in the 1940s.
In India too, lion-hunting was a popular past time for the royalty and other aristocrats. As recently as 1964, you could hunt lions in Gujarat for just Rs 300. Even the Gir forest where the animals continue to live were once the hunting grounds of the Nawab of Junagadh, the last of whom banned hunting of the animal after its numbers dropped precipitously.
Conservationist Valmik Thapar has offered another theory for why there are so few Asiatic lions still alive in the wild. In Exotic Aliens, he argues that the lions were never indigenous to the area, but were simply introduced into the region for the purpose of hunting.
This, however, remains a fringe theory and whether indigenous or not, the one good bit of news is that the Gir lion itself is thriving: Over the last hundred years, there has been a 15-fold increase in the number of lions (523 at last count) and their range now covers 22,000 sq. km, up from the core zone of 6,000 sq. km.
There have even been efforts to reintroduce the animals into Madhya Pradesh, although that project has run into trouble because of political wrangling between the two states.