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Indian state’s grip on rare lions may be too tight


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Gujarat officials insist lion attacks on humans don’t happen. Nonsense, say scientists and residents.

Research indicates confrontations are increasing, as the growing cat population has pushed one in four lions into new mini-sanctuaries they get to by riverbeds that snake through farms and villages.

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Droughts that kill prey can make matters worse. After a drought in the 1980s, there were 120 lion confrontations in 1989-91 killing 21 people — five taken as lion food, said biologist Ravi Chellam.

Most of the estimated 15 lion attacks each year happen outside the park, where people are less lion-savvy, scientists say. In April, a lion killed a 35-year-old man who was reportedly pelting it with stones.

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Gujarat’s conservation laurels now teeter on its next move. Experts say Gujarati officials can best show their devotion to the lions by letting some go. The lions urgently need a second sanctuary, they say — one outside Gujarat to ensure genetic diversification and protection from disease or natural disaster.

Evidence suggests the gene pool is dangerously shallow, meaning a disease that affects one Gir lion could quickly affect many. Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park saw a third of its 3,000 lions wiped out in 1994 by canine distemper, likely brought by tourists’ dogs. Decades earlier, Tanzania’s Ngorogoro Crater lions were decimated when rains spawned swarms of blood-sucking flies that left the cats with festering sores.

But Gujarat denies any need to move lions from the state. It dismisses the idea that disease or calamity could pose a threat.

To give the lions more space, Gujarat recently opened a small second sanctuary on its coast. Conservationists say the two populations are still too close together.

To address gene pool concerns, Gujarat is breeding them in a zoo, but conservationists say it’s ridiculous to think those could be a substitute for lions raised in the wild.


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"From a scientific perspective, this is the worst thing they could do. If they really cared about the species’ survival, they would want this second home," said conservation biologist William Laurance, of Australia’s James Cook University.

The central government and Madhya Pradesh state have already prepared the second lion home in Kuno, relocating villages and hiring specialists to build up a prey base for the cats. In 2006, an ecologist on the project filed a lawsuit challenging how such a plan could be enacted but no lions ever sent.

The Supreme Court is now deliberating on the messy dispute and could — if it wants — resolve it within weeks.

"India risks becoming a champion of extinction," said Faiyaz Khusdar, the ecologist who filed the lawsuit. "People would never forgive us if we lose these beautiful cats."

Gujarat also doubts that other states will keep lions safe. And here, they echo global concern.

Environmentalists increasingly question India’s commitment to its endangered wildlife, including half the world’s remaining tigers, its only black tigers, and more than half the world’s Asiatic elephants and one-horned rhinoceroses.

As the country heaves with 1.2 billion people, it has quickly industrialized its countryside, destroying most of its forests along with wetlands and mangrove stands.

More than 40 animal and plant species have gone extinct in a half-century and 134 more are critically endangered. Poaching and poisoning are rampant, despite a 1972 law criminalizing such killings. A recent study in the journal Biological Conservation counted 114 species being poached, including elephants and rhinos for their tusks, and tigers for body parts used in Chinese medicine.

Many sanctuaries have been powerless to stop the killings. There are not enough rangers, and some may take bribes. Some exasperated states like Maharashtra and Assam have told rangers they can shoot poachers on sight.

While Gujarat’s lions have been spared the worst, they still face the same threats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature changed their status to "endangered" from "critically endangered" based on their numbers in 2008, but noted they were still falling to hunters and poison traps and drowning in village wells.

Statistics are difficult to find, but a reported 34 of Gujarat’s lions were poached in 2007. Another 10 were hunted in 2009 by criminals who passed the cat bones off as tiger parts. Tigers also came under attack that year, disappearing from two sanctuaries in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

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