India sanctuary's refusal to let go of lions puts species at risk
Denverpost By Katy Daigle
Denverpost By Katy Daigle
A lioness licks her cub at the Gir Sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat. About 400 Asiatic lions live in the sanctuary. They are the last of a species that once roamed from Morocco and Greece to the eastern reaches of India.
GIR SANCTUARY, India — Within the guarded confines of this dry forest in Gujarat state, Asiatic 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 that their growing numbers could be their undoing. Crowded together, they are 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 that 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 of dollars were spent preparing the park, but Gujarat rejected the plan. 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 reached the Supreme Court.
"We are the only ones who have lions. We have managed without interference until now," said Gujarat's environment secretary, S.K. Nanda, from behind a 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."
Experts say Gujarati officials can best show their devotion to the lions by letting some go. The lions 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 blood-sucking flies that left the cats with festering sores.
Gujarat denies any need to move lions from the state. It dismisses the idea that disease or calamity poses a threat.
"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."