Last of the world's Asiatic lions clawing their way back

A court is due to settle the wrangling between two Indian states over conservation efforts to save the only remaining pride of Asia's big cats.

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GIR, INDIA // One morning, just over three months ago, Abu Bloch was cycling to work when he came across a sight that made his heart sink. Vehicles from the local forest department were haphazardly parked on the high stone bridge spanning a ravine ahead of him and a dozen officials were peering over the edge. As he moved closer, the cause of the commotion became clear: on the river bank, 30 metres below, lay the body of a fully grown male Asiatic lion - its limbs contorted and its head bloodied.

"I looked, but I didn't want to see," Mr Bloch said. "I love lions. I can't look at a dead one." Like many of the residents of Gir Forest in the north-western state of Gujarat, Mr Bloch understands just how precious the life of every Asiatic lion is. Genetically different from their African cousins, these majestic beasts once inhabited a belt of territory from the Balkans in the west to India in the east.

Today, only an estimated 360 Asiatic lions survive in the wild and they all live in Gir - a 1,600-square-kilometre patch of undulating scrub in south Gujarat. Since the local nawab, or prince, banned lion-hunting in 1901, the animals have clawed back from the brink of extinction and their population is now growing by eight per cent every five years. However, the subspecies remains highly vulnerable - not least, conservationists say, because it is concentrated in one area and could be wiped out by a contagious disease.

To protect against this, the Indian government wants to relocate a small number of lions to a park 600km away in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. But Gujarat's chief minister, the controversial and nationalistic Narendra Modi, has repeatedly refused to part with any lions, saying they are, in every sense, "Gujarat's pride". Even offers of tigers or cheetahs in exchange for lions have failed to entice Mr Modi.

Now, after more than 15 years of negotiations, proponents of the plan are hoping that the Asiatic lion's future will finally be secured when the Supreme Court rules on the issue next month. "Fundamentally, it is a matter of not having all your eggs in one basket," Ravi Chellam, the director of India's Wildlife Conservation Society, said in an interview. "The translocation plan is simply an insurance policy for the long-term survival of the Asiatic lion."

Having been celebrated in European and Asian art and literature as symbols of bravery and nobility for millennia, by the turn of the last century the Asiatic lions had almost been hunted into extinction. Gir was one of the few places the lions still roamed free and if it had not been for a strange twist of fate they would have been eradicated there, too. In 1900, the nawab of Junagadh invited the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, to Gir to shoot lions. On arriving in Gujarat, however, the viceroy learnt that there were as few as 20 lions left and urged the Nawab to protect them.

"The present generation owes it to its successors to restore the only species of a large mammal lost in the plains of India in historical times," Lord Curzon wrote to the Burma Game Preservation Association at the time. "Failure to do so would not be forgiven by the judgement of history." Thus, in one of the first acts of its kind in India, the nawab banned the lions' slaughter. After the turmoil of independence and partition, India's new government also enacted laws to protect the lions, banning lion hunting in 1955, and declaring Gir a sanctuary in 1965.

By the early nineties however, conservationists were voicing concerns that Gir was overcrowded and a second home was needed to ensure the lions' survival. An outbreak of canine distemper in Tanzania's Serengeti Park in 1994 killed more than 1,000 common African lions, adding weight to their argument, and in 1995 the federal government approved a plan to relocate a handful of lions to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh.

The government spent millions of rupees resettling the new park's human population and boosting the number of prey. But it never secured Gujarat's agreement to part with the lions, and in 2001 - the year the lions were supposed to be transferred - Mr Modi became Gujarat's chief minister. The deadlock between Gujarat and the central government deepened when in 2004 Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party was defeated by the Congress Party in a general election. Subsequent attempts to persuade Gujarat to supply lions to Kuno failed and in 2008, a group of conservationists took the state to court.

"We are arguing that no state can claim a monopoly on its wildlife, especially if that wildlife is endangered," Ritwick Dutta, the lawyer representing the Biodiversity Conservation Trust of India, said. "Any experiment has an element of risk in it, but it is a necessary risk if you consider that the reward is the long-term survival of the species." The conservation trust and other proponents of the move say a second home is also necessary to help ease overcrowding at Gir.

Although the lion population has more than doubled since 1965, Gir's area has only been expanded by 16 per cent. As a result, the lions are moving out of the park in search of new homes. One pride was found living in the scrubby grassland of Gujarat's south coast 40km away from Gir, while another has moved into the hills around Junagadh town. Inevitably, this brings the lions into greater contact with humans - often with fatal results. Last month, Gujarat's forestry department released figures that showed 72 lions died in 2008 and 2009, including five from non-natural causes.

The one Mr Bloch saw died when it jumped from a bridge after it was startled by the headlights of a car. Four other lions died from falling down wells. Last week, villagers near Junagadh hacked a lion to death with an axe after it mauled one of their neighbours. Although Gujarati officials concede that all such deaths are tragic, they say the lions are still safer in Gir than anywhere else. They are confident that a census, due next month, will reveal that the lion population has risen since the last time it was counted in 2005. They say they are working to make the environment around Gir safe by covering thousands of wells and building a bypass to move traffic further from the park.

But Gujarat's strongest argument is the Indian government's poor record protecting the tiger, the country's national animal since it replaced the lion in 1973. Numbers have dropped to 1,411 today from 3,500 in the mid-nineties, largely because of poaching to meet demand for tiger parts from China. The one case of poaching in recent years in Gir was carried out by trained tiger trappers from Madhya Pradesh, the state where the new park is located. They killed seven lions and discarded their pelts so they could pass off the body parts as those of tigers.

Thirty-eight people were arrested and Gujarati officials say there has not been another case of poaching in Gir since. "The local communities in Madhya Pradesh have done little to conserve the tiger and now you want to sacrifice the lion there, too? For what?" Pradeep Khanna, the principal chief conservator of forests, asked. By comparison, the majority of people around Gir are protective of the lions, which draw more than 100,000 tourists each year

"Because of the lions we have jobs; we can afford to send our children to good schools," said Nitin Ratangayra, a local restaurant manager in Gir. "When a lion dies we are very sad." Like him, most of the local community opposes the relocation plan, concerned that tourists would be diverted to Madhya Pradesh if it had both lions and tigers. Despite this, Mr Khanna said his department will comply if the Supreme Court gives a clear ruling to hand over the lions.

Wildlife activists are concerned that Gujarat will still find ways to hold on to the lions. "In theory the Supreme Court ruling should make all the difference, but the court has made thousands of rulings which are not complied with," said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "They will find loopholes or appeal. This is an emotional issue for them now."