photo: Shai Ben Ami
photo: Adi Philipsborn
photo: Nicole Wexler
Today, there are three lions in Jerusalem: Ziv, a 4-year-old male, who arrived from a Swedish zoo; Aysha, a 13-year-old female, who arrived from a Czech zoo; and Yasha, a two-year-old female, who came from a zoo in Germany.
Most people consider lions to be animals that symbolize the vast savannahs of Africa, but this belief stems from the fact that lions were hunted nearly to extinction everywhere else. As recently as 2000 years ago, lions were still thriving in south-west Asia, ranging from Turkey to central India, and even reached the Balkan region of Europe. These are the Asian lions. Asian lions diverged from their African relatives about 100,000 years ago. In spite of the long period in which African (Panthera leo leo) and Asian (Panthera leo persica) lions were separate, these are considered sub-species, not separate species.
As the human population grew within the Asian lions’ habitats, these lions began to disappear. Habitat destruction, fewer larger herbivores (like deer, antelope, and water buffalo) that constituted most of the lions’ prey, and overhunting by humans were the main causes for the lions’ disappearance. About 2000 years ago, lions disappeared from the Balkans, and about 900 years ago (during the Crusader period), lions disappeared from the Land of Israel. Asian lions persevered in other parts of their natural habitat until the beginning of the 19th century. Following a severe drought in India, which occurred at the beginning of the century, the lions began attacking local inhabitants. The inhabitants reacted by setting out on a vast hunting expedition, and by the beginning of the 20th century, lions disappeared from those areas as well. A few individuals remained in Iran until the middle of the 20th century. In 1910, 12 - 100 individuals remained in the Gir National Park, which is in Gujarat State, in north-west India. At the last minute, a local ruler, the Nawab of Junagadh, extended his protection to the lions and outlawed any further hunting of lions, thus saving the Asian lions from extinction. Today, about 350 lions live in this protected national park and its satellite regions, and another 85 live in captivity around the world.
The London Zoo established a breeding core in an effort to conserve the Asian lions. The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem waited a long time to participate in this breeding core, which few zoos elsewhere in the world participate in. The small size of the lion population at the beginning of the 20th century is a factor that affects today’s population of lions to the present day. Genetic studies have demonstrated that Asian lions are genetically identical – just like identical twins. A similar situation exists in cheetahs. This kind of genetic sameness makes the Asian lion population particular vulnerable to disease and infection, because if one individual is sensitive to a certain problem (such as a disease), the other individuals in the population will be sensitive to the exact same problem. This is why attempts are being made to find another location for a lion preserve, and to split the population so that we don’t “keep all of our eggs in one basket”. The small size of the population and the genetic similarity of its individuals have led to another problem. Harmful mutations have amassed within the population, and in the case of Asian lions, these mutations result in a low quality of sperm cells produced by male lions, which makes it difficult to fertilize the females, and causes a high mortality rate in the cubs. These are challenges to Asian lion conservation efforts around the world.
Name: Asian Lion (also called the Asiatic lion)
Scientific Name: Panthera leo persica
Global Conservation Status: endangered (EN)
In Israel: extinct
At the Zoo: Asian Lion Exhibit
In the Bible: The lion is mentioned about 150 times in the Bible, more than any of the other predators combined, and has spawned a series of boys’ names at various stages of life: arieh, ari, kfir, lavi, shahal, layyish, and apparently, shahatz as well. The many descriptions of lions in the Bible allow us to conclude that the animal was commonly found in our area. The description in the Book of Amos (Chapter 3, verse 12) provides testimony of how real this threat was: “As the shepherd saves from the lion's mouth two legs or the cartilage of an ear...”. It is generally accepted that the Biblical lion was the Asian lion. It became the symbol of the kingdom of Judah, and later, it became the symbol of Jerusalem. The Asian lion’s range used to stretch from Greece to central India but it became extinct over most of its range, mostly due to hunting. The last lion in Israel was hunted by crusaders in the 12th century.
Habitat and Distribution: Today, the Asian lion can be found in the Gir Forest National Park, in India, and in surrounding nature reserves.
Body Structure: Smaller than African lions - males weigh between 160 - 190 kg, and females can reach a weight of 110-120 kg. They are 110 centimeters tall, and 290 centimeters long. Males have a mane that can reach their hips (the manes of African lions end near their chests).
Diet: Apex predator- lions prey on a wide range of large and medium-sized herbivores.
Social Structure: Prides. This is the only member of the cat family to live in groups (called “prides”).
Activity cycle: Nocturnal - lions sleep for an average of 18-20 hours a day.
Threats in the wild: hunting and habitat destruction, competing with humans over space.