Lions at risk as Indian states feud

Plan to relocate Asiatic lion stalls as states compete for tourism business
Krittivas Mukherjee Straits Times 21 Aug 12;

NEW DELHI - The world's last remaining Asiatic lions could become the victims of success of a plan to save them from extinction, as their swelling numbers in a small jungle in India make them vulnerable to disease, a shrinking prey base and territorial fights, animal conservationists say.

Yet a ready plan to move some of them to a new home in another patch of forest is caught in a bureaucratic catfight between two Indian states. The dispute has reached the Supreme Court, which now has to rule on the fate of these big cats.

There were fewer than 50 Asiatic lions at the Gir sanctuary in the western state of Gujarat at the turn of the last century, but successful conservation saw their population grow to 411 at last count in 2010.

But their fragile comeback from near-extinction is being threatened by overpopulation in the 1,400 sq km Gir sanctuary, which is quickly running out of space. Gujarat has created a smaller semi-sanctuary close to Gir but that is not enough.

Unless they are moved, experts warn, the big cats are still at risk of extinction from a single epidemic or a natural disaster. Overcrowding also means a shortage of prey, inbreeding and more frequent deadly turf fights.

Smaller grazing grounds have also increased man-animal conflict as Gir's lions have begun straying into nearby farms and villages. Over the past decade, some two dozen lions have drowned after falling into wells used by villagers living in the buffer zone.

Wildlife experts blame humans.

"Lions are not entering villages, humans are entering their habitats," Mr Debasis Chakrabarti, founder of animal rights group Compassionate Crusaders Trust told The Straits Times.

Conservationists saw a solution in a new home for the lions, far away from Gir in a rugged and hilly sanctuary called Kuno in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state. But Gujarat has refused to send any of its lions there.

The tussle saw an ecologist involved in getting Kuno ready seek the court's intervention.

Earlier this month, Gujarat told the Supreme Court that Madhya Pradesh had failed to keep its dwindling tiger population safe from poachers, and hence relocating any of its lions there would be unwise.

"Asiatic lions are our unique pride, what is the need to send them anywhere when we are doing a great job of conserving them," Gujarat's environment secretary S.K. Nanda argued.

Almost as large as their African cousin, male Asiatic lions have less fluffy manes and their tails have larger tufts. This sub-species once roamed the jungles from Morocco and Greece across the Middle East to India. By the 20th century, trophy hunting had nearly decimated their population.

In India, though, the last few dozen Asiatic lions were given a shot at life after a princely ruler banned hunting in 1901.

Under protection, the Asiatic lions have thrived in Gujarat even as tigers and other wildlife across India have continued to be hunted or poached, pushing them ever closer to extinction.

The tussle between the two states, many experts say, is actually a fight for pride and tourism business, rather than concern for the big cats - Madhya Pradesh for boosting wildlife tourism, Gujarat for retaining its unique branding as the sole sanctuary of Asiatic lions in the wild in the world.

Mr Chakrabarti says the first option should be to try to secure and enlarge the buffer zone for lions in Gir itself.

"Airlifting these lions should be the last option," he said.

"There are issues with relocation like availability of prey and suitable conditions. Often translocation results in deaths of a species."