In India, a lion conservation success story turns into political issue

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 17, 2010

GIR, INDIA -- With their paws and mouths bloodied from a feast, three sandy-brown lionesses sauntered toward a water hole as the setting sun pierced the trees and the birds grew quiet.

The forest ranger turned down his walkie-talkie and whispered, "They are fresh from a kill."

The sprawling, deciduous Gir forest is the only habitat in the world for the free-ranging Asiatic lions, a species similar to its well-known African cousin. At one time, the Asiatic lions spread from the Tigris River valley to the Indian subcontinent, but now they are found in the wild only in Gir, in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

That fact is a point of immense pride in Gujarat, where the lions were once close to extinction and today number more than 400. But this rare big-cat conservation success has turned into a political hot potato, with the fate of the lions -- featured standing back to back in India's national emblem -- caught up in ethnic pride and arguments over how best to protect them.

Conservationists say that the lions are at risk because the entire species is cloistered in one pocket of forestland and inbreeding is widespread. They want to move some of Gir's lions to another state.

Gujarat does not want to part with its lions.

"People of Gujarat state are very emotional and possessive about the lions," said Sudhir Chaturvedi, the chief conservator of forests at the lion habitat. "The lion is a source of our pride -- there is a personal connect with the lions. We cannot trust others to care for them like we do here."

'Sitting on a time bomb'

In the early 1900s, the lions were close to extinction, with just 20 left in the wild because of relentless trophy hunting. But after authorities banned hunting, declared the habitat a protected lion reserve, built up a robust prey base and moved out scores of forest-dwelling families, the lion population grew steadily. A count last month put their total at 411.

"The Gir lion story is clearly one of our crowning conservation successes. The problem is that all the eggs are in one basket now. We are sitting on a time bomb. Entire decades of conservation gains can be wiped out by any catastrophe like disease, drought, fire or war," said Ravi Chellam, India director of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

More than a decade ago, officials proposed moving some of the lions, and India has spent more than $3 million to prepare a large park called the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh.

But Gujarat resisted. So conservationists went to the Supreme Court in 2007 arguing to move five lions from Gir, citing such dangers as an outbreak of canine distemper in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in 1994, which killed 30 percent of its lions within weeks. The court's arguments are in the final stage.

Gujarat's officials say that they have worked very hard to save the lions from extinction.

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