Supplementing efforts to preserve the Asiatic lion, albeit in captivity, the Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh has bred about 150 lions since the '50s. These have been sent to zoos in India and abroad and form the only pure-bred population of the cat in captivity.
Sakkarbaug zoo officer R D Katara reveals that the global captive breeding programme for the Asiatic lion was disturbed when a blood test method developed about a decade ago to distinguish between Asian and African lions revealed that almost all the zoo lions abroad were hybrids. The intermixing was traced back to a zoo in India which had once allowed both species to mix. Lions from the Sakkarbaug zoo then stepped in to help restore the purity of the captive breeding programme.
Inbreeding is another danger as all Asiatic lions today are derived from the small population of 30 lions surviving in Gir in the early twentieth century, says Katara. Adds zoo officer R H Sabapara, "Of our present stock of 34 lions, about 5 males and 20 females were caught from the wild, strengthening the genetic build of the breeding programme." Wild lions are captured from Gir forests when they are injured and require treatment, or if cubs are found abandoned.
The zoo, established in 1863 by the Nawab of Junagadh specifically to interact with the sanctuary, has undertaken controlled breeding of lions since the past 4 decades. It is now the Indian regional Studbook Keeper of Asiatic Lion. Every lion in the programme now has a scientific history sheet with its physical specifications including date of puberty and other details mentioned.
Lions bred in captivity, however, cannot be introduced into the wild. Nevertheless, as Katara says, "These form a second population which will be a safety net to complement efforts to build up the small wild population."