Big cats prefer the taste of wild flesh
Conservation stories can be hard to tell. Not so the story of the Asiatic lion - which is a rare beast, in every sense.
New research just published highlights an increase in the numbers of Asiatic lions surviving in the Gir Forest of India.
The numbers aren’t large. From a base of 180 lions left in 1974, the population has risen to 411 by 2010.
But that’s impressive considering just a few dozen survived at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Even more impressive is how it was achieved (more of that later) and how lessons might be learnt that could help ensure the survival of other threatened big cats, such as snow leopards.
It may seem odd to say that conservation stories can be hard to tell. BBC Nature has recently reported on the decline in British oil beetles, and how an oil spill is affecting up to 10,000 rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha island, a UK overseas territory.
But they are hard to report. Not because they don’t matter – they do, hugely so. And not because they are dull – they are not, often focusing on some of the world’s most beautiful, iconic, unique or interesting species.
It can become numbing to repeatedly hear this basic plot line. So much so that we struggle to listen to the hugely complex web of ecological factors that can drive a species toward extinction, or help bring it back.
That’s why it’s important to celebrate the good news stories. If you care about wildlife, you’ll want to celebrate them for their own sake. But it’s important to highlight them for another reason: because success breeds success, and successful breeding programmes can help bolster each other.
Asiatic lions are a subspecies of the modern lion, which remains much more abundant in Africa, although its numbers there are dwindling. Being a subspecies doesn’t make the Asiatic lion less worthy – it's the last of a kind that once roamed the Asian subcontinent.
This big cat has a preference for dry deciduous forests, thorny forests and savannah, which have disappeared fast in India. But it's also worth remembering something that seems obvious: big cats have a taste for wild flesh.
The key to the Gir lions' revival appears to have been a dramatic increase in the numbers of wild ungulates. Between 1970 and 2010, numbers of chital, sambar, blue bull and wild boar among others rose 10-fold in total within the Gir forest in the southwest part of the Saurashtra region in the state of Gujarat, scientists report in the journal Biological Conservation.
Even more important, this new abundance of natural food meant the lions no longer relied on hunting livestock, which brought them into direct contact, and conflict, with local herders.
The increase in prey, and lions, has come as the result of decades of hard work and intensive management by conservationists in Gujarat.
The big cats are even tentatively dispersing out into their former range with a quarter of the population (35 males, 35 females, 19 subadults and 16 cubs at the last count) now existing outside the Gir forest.
Lessons learned here could be vital for bringing other large carnivores back from the brink.
Which brings us to the snow leopard. Fewer than 7000 snow leopards are thought to survive in the mountains of central Asia.
New research has, for the first time, attempted to establish exactly what wild snow leopards in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Baltistan, Pakistan, are eating.
The study, published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, examined the faeces, or scats, left by these elusive animals.
It revealed that 70% of what snow leopards are eating in the region is domestic livestock, and a range of livestock at that: 23% of the biomass eaten came from sheep, 16% from goat, 10% from cattle and the rest from yak or yak-cattle hybrids.
This heavy predation on domestic livestock appears to be a likely cause of conflict with local inhabitants - and when conflict between humans and wild animals occurs, there tends to be only one winner.
So it’s clear that conservation initiatives need to focus on mitigating this conflict by minimising livestock losses – and one way to do that, the Gir lions recovery tells us, is to boost wild prey numbers once more.
(On a related note, news arrived late last month, sent by the Snow Leopard Network, (SLN) that the Mongolian government has reversed an earlier decision to allow the killing of four snow leopards in the country. The volte face came after pressure from conservationists, including Charudutt ‘Charu’ Mishra, executive director of the SLN and a past winner of the Whitley Gold Award.)