India state accused of putting pride before lions

AHMEDABAD, India Fri May 11, 2007 5:39am EDT

An Asiatic lion rests in Gir forest, about 355 km (221 miles) from the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 14, 2007. An Indian state housing the world's only natural habitat for the rare Asiatic lion is refusing to relocate the big cats despite calls from conservationists who say it is the only way to save the species. REUTERS/Amit Dave

An Asiatic lion rests in Gir forest, about 355 km (221 miles) from the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 14, 2007. An Indian state housing the world's only natural habitat for the rare Asiatic lion is refusing to relocate the big cats despite calls from conservationists who say it is the only way to save the species.

Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

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AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - An Indian state housing the world's only natural habitat for the rare Asiatic lion is refusing to relocate the big cats despite calls from conservationists who say it is the only way to save the species.

Over a dozen lions have died -- mainly due to increased poaching -- in the last two months in Gir National Park. Yet, authorities in Gujarat in western India are resisting calls to shift some of the population to a neighboring state.

"The lions are a symbol of Gujarat's uniqueness in the world," Chief Minister Narendra Modi said in a recent speech. "Why should we share it when we are capable enough?"

Environmentalists say pride is coming before the interests of the lions. A second home is needed, they say, because it is too risky to keep all the world's Asiatic lions in one place.

Since March, 14 lions have died -- seven were killed by poachers, four drowned in wells dug by villagers living inside the park, two died due to infighting and one died of natural causes.

Carcasses of those killed by poachers had their claws, skulls and bones missing.

The bones are used for traditional Chinese medicine and the claws are worn by some men as pendants in the hope of increasing their virility.

Conservationists say that keeping all the big cats in Gir is also a serious risk as a single epidemic or natural disaster could wipe out the entire population, which was 359 in 2005.

A SECOND HOME?

"Lions belong to the whole planet and Gujarat has to learn to share them as it will serve as a life insurance for the last surviving Asiatic lions," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

As far back as 1994, the Wildlife Institute of India recommended Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh as the most suitable site for an alternate home for the lions.

Following federal government approval for the relocation, authorities have been preparing the ground for their arrival.

Villages inside the sanctuary have been relocated, the habitat restored and the prey-base enhanced, say forest officials, adding the site is now ready to receive the lions.

But Gujarat officials refuse to pursue the experiment, saying Madhya Pradesh is ill-equipped to handle the lions.

The federal government says it wants the lions to be moved fast, for the sake of the animals and the entire country.

"It is a matter of the pride of India," central Environment Minister A. Raja said in a recent interview to NDTV news.

"If the lions are going to be put at stake, then ultimately not only Gujarat will go down in the eyes of the world, but so will the entire credibility of India."

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