Conservation Notebook: The Asiatic Lion

By Randall G. Wolfe, AAZPA Species Coordinator & Studbook Keeper, Knoxville Zoological Park

This article originally ran in the Spring 1988 issue of Zoo View, the quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.

Like most specimens in the United States, the Los Angeles Zoo's male Asiatic lion is not a purebred animal. He is descended from mixed African/Asian stock.

The Asiatic lion, (Panthera persica), was, in 1981, one of the first species designated by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) for Species Survival Plan (SSP) management. The North American population has grown from approximately 25 animals in 1981 to 75 animals today. It is derived from only four founders. The wild population, numbering fewer than 250 animals, is found only in the Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat State, western India.

The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs both imported a pair of lions in the early 1970s. The Lincoln Park animals originated from India’s Delhi Zoo, and the Cheyenne Mountain animals were imported from the Trivandrum Zoo in southern India. These four animals were the original founders for the North American population.

Although these animals were imported as pure Asian lions, there were questions concerning two of them, as the Trivandrum Zoo was known to exhibit Asian and African lions together. In September 1984, when a letter was received from the Trivandrum Zoo indicating that most of the lions exhibited there were mixtures of the Asian and African subspecies, the suspicion of intergrades existing in the population was reaffirmed. This raised two questions: Are Asian and African lions genetically different; and if so, are the differences great enough to warrant separate management of the two subspecies?

In 1986, scientists at the National Cancer Institute agreed to conduct a molecular genetic investigation of the North American SSP population to ascertain whether or not the captive population was mixed with African blood. Forty-six electrophoretic allozyme systems resolved from extracts of lion blood were studied on 15 wild African lions from Kruger National Park in South Africa, 27 wild African lions from the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania, East Africa, 18 captive African lions in North American zoos, 28 captive Asian lions at the Sakkarbaug Zoo, and 29 studbook-registered Asian lions in the North American SSP population.

The investigations found that there were indeed measurable genetic differences between the African and Asian lions (enough to justify separate subspecies management) and concluded that the Trivandrum imports were not pure Asian lions. As a result, virtually every animal in the SSP population was affected. In fact, of the 234 living specimens in collections worldwide, only 66 were pure Asian lions. New founders had to be acquired to begin rebuilding the captive population.

Although seven Indian zoos exhibit the Asian lion, the majority of the captive animals reside at one institution. The Sakkarbaug Zoo, located near the Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat State, is home to 49 lions, and is the only zoo to exhibit unrelated animals. This fact, coupled with the discovery of the genetic impurities in the captive population, has prompted Indian wildlife officials to have their own technicians receive training in the electrophoretic techniques used to distinguish pure Asian from African lions. Because the Asian lion is considered a national treasure of India, the government plans to establish genetically compatible prides at several reputable Indian zoos to secure a future for their own captive programs. Once this process has begun, new founders for both the European and North American populations will become available.

It’s important to realize that the problems discovered with the captive population of Asian lions are not the result of any ill intentions or improper management, but rather reflects the level of scientific technology utilized today to investigate and manage captive populations. The AAZPA/SSP Asian Lion Propagation Group is working with the Indian government to expedite the rebuilding process.

 

This article originally ran in the Spring 1988 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership. The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) is now known as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). To learn more about Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs, visit https://www.aza.org/ssp-population-sustainability.