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Mystery disease killing lions in India

NEW DELHI -- Nearly two dozen crossbred lions are slowly dying in
northern India from a mysterious disease afflicting the hybrid
offspring of Asiatic and African cats paired in a discontinued
experimental program.

Zookeepers are mournfully watching the results of the program, which
began in the late 1980s at the Chhatbir Zoo and was ended in 2002 after
many of the nearly 80 crossbred lions were struck by a mysterious
disease linked to inbreeding and a weakened gene pool, said Kuldip
Kumar, Punjab state's conservator of forests and wildlife.

Wildlife officials had originally hoped the hybrid cats could be
introduced into the wild in an effort to bolster India's endangered
wild lion population.

When the program ended, all of the male lions were given vasectomies to
prevent further breeding, Kumar said.

Indian wildlife laws prohibit killing the animals.

It will take about six years for the remaining 22 crossbred lions to
die of natural causes, Kumar said.

Zoo authorities have decided to launch a new captive breeding project
using "pure Asiatic lion stock from other zoos in the country, but only
after the last of the earlier crop of lions have been phased out," he

The zoo has recently built an enclosed area for the oldest and most
infirm of the lions, so they are not attacked by the more robust cats.

"At any time the zoo has around four to five lions that are too old and
weak to compete with the younger, more aggressive lions," Kumar said.

The lions are fed boneless meat, he said.

Wildlife experts say rampant poaching is driving the Asiatic lion to
extinction, especially in the Gir forests in western India, the last
wild refuge of the big cats.

The last lion census conducted in the forests in 2000 put the number of
Asiatic lions at 320. The animals' numbers have further dwindled due to
poaching, open wells that act as death traps and human encroachment on
lion habitat.

Lions are killed for their pelts and claws, both of which command a
huge price in the illegal wildlife trade.


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