Q: What is the difference between African and Asian lions? Why do some institutions continue to call their lions 'Asian' when there are only two known pure Asian lions in the United States?
A: Only a remnant population of Asian lions remains in the Gir Forest Sanctuary, a 560-square-mile reserve (roughly the size of Houston, Texas) in northwest India. Asian lions differ from African lions by having a smaller mane in males, an abdominal fold and pairing (or bifurcation) of the infraorbital foramen (that is, they have two holes as opposed to one in the skull just below the eye).
In the mid 1980s it was discovered that some of the lions imported to the U.S. from Trivandrum Zoo in India had been hybridized (crossed with African lions). Extensive genetic analyses were needed to distinguish the hybrid lions from the pure. These tests revealed that very few pure Asian lions were left in the U.S. institutions. Therefore, most of the "Asian" lions on display are actually an Asian-African mix.
Efforts are under way to import additional pure sock directly from the Sakkarbaug Zoo, which is located outside the Gir Forest. They will be brought to the Knoxville Zoological Gardens where the only surviving pure Asian lions remain in the U.S. The zoo maintains the International Studbook for this species.
--Michael Fouraker, Asian Lion Species Coordinator and International Studbook Keeper
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