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