Asiatic lions, rescued from near extinction, now need a new home

The fate of the world's last Asiatic lions in the wild – once dominant in forests from Morocco and Greece across the Middle East to eastern India – rests in the hands of bureaucrats, and now the case has reached India's Supreme Court.

Tourists take photos of an Asiatic lion during a safari at the Gir Sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat, India.
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GUJARAT // A peacock shrieks. A monkey scrambles higher into the fire-coloured canopy of a kesudo tree. And an Asiatic lion - one of the last few hundred in the wild - pads across the dusty earth of a West Indian sanctuary that is its only refuge from the modern world.

Within the guarded confines of this dry forest in Gujarat state, the lions have been rescued from near-extinction. A century ago, fewer than 50 remained. Today more than 400 fill the park and sometimes wander into surrounding villages and farmland.

But the lions' precarious return is in jeopardy. Experts warn their growing numbers could be their undoing. Crowded together, they are more vulnerable to disease and natural disaster. There is little new territory for young males to claim, increasing chances for inbreeding, territorial conflict or males killing the young.

Conservationists agree these lions need a second home fast, and far from Gir government-backed experts in the 1990s settled on a rugged and hilly sanctuary called Kuno, where lions historically roamed with tigers in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. Millions were spent preparing the park. But Gujarat rejected the plan. And no lions were sent.

Now, the uncertain fate of the Asiatic lions - once dominant in forests from Morocco and Greece across the Middle East to eastern India - rests in the hands of bureaucrats, and the case has now reached the Supreme Court.

"We are the only ones who have lions. We have managed without interference until now," Gujarat's environment secretary, SK Nanda, said proudly from behind an enormous desk in an office complex decorated with lion posters reading: "Gujarat's pride; World's envy."

"Can we humans be arbiters of where these lions should live? Should we move the mountains and the rivers, too?" Mr Nanda said. "If the lions want to move, let them move on their own."

The subject of saving lions is an emotional one in India. The lion holds iconic status in religions and cultures. The multi-armed Hindu warrior goddess Durga is traditionally shown with a lion as her mount. Four lions make the national emblem, symbolising power, courage, pride and confidence. Even the common Sikh name "Singh," shared by the current prime minister, means "lion" in several languages.

The Asiatic lions, a subspecies, are nearly as large as their African cousins, though the males' manes are less fluffy and their tails have larger tufts.

By the 20th century, they had nearly been wiped out by trophy hunters. The last Asiatic lion outside Gujarat was gunned down in Iran in 1942. Within India, hundreds of thousands of lions, tigers, leopards and wolves were killed over decades of frenzied hunting, encouraged by British colonials. Three years after independence, the country's Asiatic cheetahs were extinct.

But the lions in Gujarat got a reprieve. A princely ruler banned hunting of the few dozen lions left in 1901.

The state created Gir Sanctuary over more than 1,400 square kilometres, relocating all but a few hundred buffalo herdsmen who lived peaceably with the predators, mainly by giving them wide berth.

The sanctuary became a model in conservation, with constant patrols against poachers and cultivated grasslands for the lions' prey: spotted deer and blue-hued antelope. A veterinary hospital was built. The lions thrived.

Tourists from India's newly minted middle class now flock to the park. A few dozen trackers keep count of the animals and fill artificial water holes.

"Not everyone gets a job like this," said Raju Vajadiya, idly swinging a stick, the only defence he and his colleagues usually have or need. "It is a godly thing to give a lion water on a hot day."

Protecting the lions has been popular with locals, who consider the predators docile when not harassed. Farmers welcome them in their fields. Newly married couples visit them for good luck. Families break park rules to picnic by Gir's streams, unaware or unconcerned that they are water sources for the big cats.

At the same time, locals in general are more open to sharing the lions with other states than Gujarat's leaders are.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 industrialised 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 criminalising 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.

Environmentalists say the need for the central government to protect species is not declining but rising as India's population and economy soar.

"Conservation in India is not about managing animals anymore," said Divyabhanusinh Chavda of the World Wildlife Fund in India.

"It's about managing people."