In this photograph taken on March 23, 2013, seven year old Asiatic lion, Ambar, watches from inside his open enclosure at the Kamla Nehru Zoological Garden in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. (Sam Panthak/AFP/Getty Images)

The deaths of 10 rare lions in India has put the endangered species at the center of a political controversy once again.

Only about 500 Asiatic lions remain in India, all of them living in and around Gir National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in the western state of Gujarat.

When the lions were swept away by flood waters earlier this month, politicians and conservationists in India renewed their calls for some lions to be relocated to another forest preserve in a neighboring state to ensure their survival.

Rare Asiatic lion cubs look harmless, but they are at the center of a political controversy in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat. (Video courtesy Gujarat Department of Forests and Environment)

But the problem is that Gujarat – which happens to be the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is loathe to part with any of its prized creatures. They’ve even balked at complying with a 2013 Supreme Court ruling ordering some lions be moved to Kuno wildlife sanctuary in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh.

Modi’s opponents were quick to seize upon the issue.

Modi, who was born in Gujarat and served as chief minister there for more than a decade, has often embraced the lion motif in his career. He was introduced at political rallies to the taped roar of a lion and chose the animal as the mascot of his “Make In India” campaign to promote local manufacturing.

His government also raised the ire of tiger preservationists earlier this year, when the country’s national wildlife board reportedly began discussing whether to replace India’s national animal, the tiger, with the Gir lion. The tiger had been named India's national animal in 1972, by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government.

Eleven rare Asiatic lion cubs have been born in India's Gir National Forest sanctuary this month. By Sandeep Kumar, divsional conservator, Gir National Park, courtesy of Gujarat Department of Forests and Environment
Eleven rare Asiatic lion cubs have been born in India's Gir National Forest sanctuary this month. (Sandeep Kumar/Gujarat Department of Forests and Environment)

The Gujarat government says that the lions are doing fine where they are, citing a population growth of 27 percent since 2010, according to the last count in May. They are thriving in the brushy areas of Gir sanctuary with plenty of spotted deer and nilgai (blue bull) to eat, environmental officials say. They've also ventured beyond the sanctuary to live in new coastal areas.

“They are the pride of our state,” said P.K. Parmar, principal secretary of Gujarat’s Forests and Environment department. Villagers around the sanctuary were so heartbroken when the lions died, he said, they held a prayer service for them.


Indian police personnel and onlookers carry the body of an Asiatic lion along the banks of a river in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat on June 27. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

But shortly thereafter, good news: 11 cubs were born, with dozens more expected to follow by the end of the monsoon season, Parmar said.

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