The killing of more Asiatic lions in the Gir Lion Sanctuary is a national disgrace. It highlights the deeper malaise afflicting India’s wildlife parks, presided over by indifferent bureaucrats and forest officials. The mutilated bodies of two lionesses and a cub were found last week in the park. From all accounts, poachers killed the animals, leaving behind the pelts and taking claws, bones and skulls, which are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
The world’s last surviving group of the big cat’s sub-species in the wild has been under enormous pressure in Gir. Sadly, while the disappearance of India’s tiger population has raised a national outcry, the gentler Asiatic lion’s fragile existence has not caused quite the same alarm. Unlike the 3,000-odd tigers in India’s 27 wildlife reserves, there are less than 300 Asiatic lions left in the confines of Gir. Apart from poaching, bad land management outside the sanctuary seems to have played a key role in silencing the lions’ roar. Whenever they run out of fodder for their livestock, villagers send cattle herds into the forests. This disturbs the jungle food chain, making it difficult for the lions to hunt their natural prey like sambar and chital. Add to this the wanton deforestation, and it’s easy to see what sometimes prompts the big cats to wander miles outside the jungle.
It’s time the authorities had a full audit on the Gir park’s infrastructure. If they are serious about cracking down on poaching, encroachments and illegal mining in the area, forest officers should be given solid backing whenever they get into legal wrangles with politically-connected poachers and timber merchants. Forest guards — who often remain on duty in the forest 24/7 without any medical, educational or social facilities — and deal with well-armed poachers using dandas should be adequately trained and equipped. The government could also rope in the villagers to help out, sharing with them the revenue from the enhanced tourism that would then be attracted to the last home of these magnificent beasts.