Most people think of lions as strictly African beasts, but only because they've been killed off almost everywhere else. Ten thousand years ago lions spanned vast sections of the globe, and so did people, who—as they multiplied and organized—put pressure on competitors at the top of the food chain. Now lions hold only a small fraction of their former habitat, and Asiatic lions, a subspecies that split from African lions perhaps 100,000 years ago, hang on to an almost impossibly small slice of their former domain.
India is the proud steward of these 300 or so lions, which live primarily in a 560-square-mile (1,450 square kilometers) sanctuary. It took me a year and a half to get a permit to explore the entire Gir Forest—and no time at all to see why these lions became symbols of royalty and greatness. A tiger will slink through the forest unseen, but a lion stands its ground, curious and unafraid—lionhearted. Though they told me in subtle ways when I got too close, Gir's lions allowed me unique glimpses into their lives during my three months in the forest. It's odd to think that they are threatened by extinction; Gir has as many lions as it can hold—too many, in fact. With territory in short supply, lions prowl the periphery of the forest and even leave it altogether, often clashing with people. That's one reason India is creating a second sanctuary. There are other pressing reasons: outbreaks of disease or natural disasters. In 1994 canine distemper killed more than a third of Africa's Serengeti lions—a thousand animals—a fate that could easily befall Gir's cats. These lions, saved by a prince at the turn of the 20th century, are especially vulnerable to disease because they descend from as few as a dozen individuals. "If you do a DNA fingerprint, Asiatic lions actually look like identical twins," says Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist who has studied them. Yet the perils are hidden, and you wouldn't suspect them by watching these lords of the forest. The lions exude vitality, and no small measure of charm.