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Originally published Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Saving, and seeing, India's last lions

Asiatic lions have been rescued from extinction in Gujarat's Gir Sanctuary, but they remain in peril

The Associated Press

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GIR SANCTUARY, India — A peacock shrieks. A monkey scrambles higher into the fire-colored 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 neighboring 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.

"We are the only ones who have lions. We have managed without interference until now," Gujarat's environment secretary, S.K. 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?" Nanda said. "If the lions want to move, let them move on their own."

Tourists and lions

The subject of saving lions is an emotional one in India. The lion also 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 — symbolizing 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 kilometers (540 square miles), 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, riding open-topped jeeps to see lions lazing under trees or teaching their butterfly-chasing young to stalk small prey.

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 defense 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.

"The lion is like a god to us," peanut farmer Sadik Hasein Chotiyara said. "If the lion attacks, it's because that person made a mistake."

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. In April, a lion killed a 35-year-old man who was reportedly pelting it with stones.

A shallow gene pool

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 bloodsucking 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.

"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.

"They are not able to conserve their own wildlife. How can they protect ours?" said R.L. Meena, a Gujarat district wildlife warden.

He insisted the state would defy any court order not in its favor. "They will not take our lions."

Lion pride

Conservationists say dangers outside Gujarat are an argument for better wildlife protection nationwide, but not an excuse for resisting the Kuno lion home in Madhya Pradesh.

"Gujarat is fiercely proud of the lions, and rightfully so," said biologist Luke Hunter of Panthera conservation group based in New York. "You would think they'd want to take the next logical step in conservation and establish other populations."

Some accuse Gujarat of using its hold on the lions as a tourism draw. Gujarat fires the same allegation at states willing to take lions in.

The central government supports moving lions to Kuno, but notes that Indian wildlife laws leave decisions to the 28 states. "We will not interfere," environment secretary Tishya Chatterjee said.

But New Delhi has intervened to protect wildlife before. It launched a nationwide tiger-protection project in the 1970s. In a situation similar to the lions, it ordered the northeastern state of Assam to contribute rhinos for a second population to boost that gene pool in faraway Uttar Pradesh state.

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."

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