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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Saving India's Asiatic lion poses New Challenges

Success in saving the rare Asiatic lion in India has in turn created new challenges to the king of the jungle in its last natural habitat, as problems with human encroachment and poaching mount.

The population of lions in the Gir forests of western Gujarat state has climbed from 20 in 1913 to more than 350 today, experts say.

"The increase in the population of lions in Gir is posing a problem," said Daval Mehta of the Wildlife Protection Society of India in Gujarat. "The lions are dispersing to reclaim their earlier habitats which is bringing them into increasing conflict with humans."

A wake-up call to the growing troubles for the lion in the Gir forests came this year, when more than 30 of the animals died between January and November -- the most lion deaths in one year on official record.

Among one of the biggest threats to lions are thousands of open wells, said Kishore Kotecha, head of the voluntary Wildlife Conservation Trust, noting that 25 of the animals have drowned in wells between 2002 and 2007.

Farmers and residents of the 158 villages that border Gir have dug some 9,000 wells, and to save money, "they leave the wells uncovered, transforming them into death traps for lions and other animals in the reserve," Kotecha said.

Lions have also been killed by electric fences built by farmers to keep deer away from their crops.

Increased traffic -- cars and buses shuttle pilgrims to four Hindu temples inside the sanctuary -- has taken its toll, too, with at least one lion killed by a vehicle this year.

Bharat Pathak, a senior wildlife official overseeing the Gir conservation programme, said work was underway to keep "the sanctuary area free of human encroachments, besides sensitising people to the behaviour of lions to ensure that there is harmony between the species."

Those measures include nature education programmes and allowing more people to observe lions in a controlled manner, said Pathak's deputy, H.S. Sharma.

Genetically different from the sub-Saharan African lion, Asiatic lions are smaller and boast a more modest mane. They have a fold of skin running along the belly -- rarely found in their African cousins.

At least 1,000 Asiatic lions roamed India in the 1800s before hunting took its toll.

The highly territorial male lion needs at least 20 square kilometres (eight square miles) of land to survive, experts says. Under a 2005 census, Gir had 87 fully grown males fighting for too little space.

"It is necessary to increase the reserve area to protect the lions," Mehta said, noting the Gir Reserve area had not been expanded since the 1970s.

The traditional threat of poaching also remains a major concern for the lion. In March, eight lions were killed by poachers in three separate incidents.

"We have arrested them and registered cases against them," Pathak said.

Once found from Macedonia to Yemen and the subcontinent via Iran, "today, the Asiatic lion ... survives only in India," said Pathak. "That is why it is imperative to continue conservation efforts."

"The species is recovering," Pathak said. "But the lion is not yet off the list of endangered species of the World Conservation Union, which means we still have some way to go."

Given that the revival of the Gir lion population has created many of the problems, the Wildlife Protection Society of India has suggested re-location of the animals -- an idea the India government is toying with.

"It is important not to fritter away the results achieved so painstakingly over the years. A second unconnected population of lions is essential" to ensure survival," said society head Belinda Wright.


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