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What Is the Difference Between African & Asian Lions?

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When the two subspecies of Panthera leo are seen side by side, differences between them might seem relatively minor -- but appearances don't tell the whole story. African and Asiatic lions have been geographically isolated from each other for about 200,000 years. Put into the perspective of human history, that's about 100,000 years before Homo sapiens -- modern man -- arrived on the scene. Today, fewer than 30,000 African lions and only about 400 Asiatic lions are left in the wild.

African Lion

Apart from the humans squeezing African lions off their lands, the King of Beasts has no natural enemies. Of the big cats, only the tiger is larger, although not by much. Adult male lions can weigh 330 to 573 pounds, their luxuriant manes making them appear even larger; females are smaller, with weights not exceeding 400 pounds. Lions live in matriarchal groups called prides that, on average, consist of four to six related lionesses and their cubs. Males have to stay strong enough to defend themselves against other males trying to move in on their territory and females, so they always get the lion's share of whatever game the lionesses bring down; otherwise, they don't participate much in family life. Lions used to roam all over Africa but now exist only in the sub-Saharan region.

Asiatic Lion

Once, this lion ranged from the Mediterranean to India and over much of West Asia, where it was known as the Persian lion. Compared to the male African lion's magnificent mane, his Asiatic counterpart sports barely a ruff. Other visible differences include size -- Asiatic lions tend to be slightly smaller than their African cousins -- and have a thicker coat, a longer tail tassel and an abdominal skin fold absent in African lions. Invisible differences include a bifurcated infraorbital foramina, two small holes in the lion's skull serving as channels for the nerves and blood vessels leading to the eyes, whereas African lions have only one. However, DNA analysis of both subspecies suggests that the most drastic differences might be genetic ones.

Disastrous Hybridizing Experiment

Subspecies should be able to mate and produce healthy, fertile offspring -- but that's not what happened when African and Asiatic lions were crossbred at Chhatbir Zoo near the Indian city of Chandigarh. In the late 1980s, the zoo, known for its lion safaris, began the experiment, and by 2002, when it was suspended, had produced almost 80 sickly hybrids with hind legs so weak they could barely walk. These pathetic animals also fell victim to a disease, described in news reports as "mysterious," that shut down their immune systems. Too feeble to defend themselves against other lions, they were isolated in their own enclosure, kept comfortable and allowed to die of natural causes. Their life expectancy should have been 16 to 18 years, but by 2006 only 22 remained; all have since died.

Diversification from Gir Forest

In April 2013, India's Supreme Court ordered that some of the Asiatic lions in Gujarat's Gir Forest be moved from that west coast state to Kuno wildlife sanctuary in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh. In a ruling bitterly opposed by Gujarat, the Supreme Court ruled that in view of the lions' extremely endangered status, all efforts to save them from extinction should be made, including dividing the existing population of just over 400 between two locations. The court has empowered a body of experts to decide how many lions should be moved, and to organize the transportation within six months.