Death Stalks World's Last Asiatic Lions

NEW DELHI, India, April 9, 2007 (ENS) - So many rare Asiatic lions have been found dead recently in and around Gir National Park that the government of India has created a committee to determine why they are dying and recommend measures to improve the situation. The panel's report is due within 30 days.

Only about 350 Asiatic lions, Panthera leo persica, still survive, clinging to existence in Gir National Park in the western state of Gujarat. The park and surrounding wildlife sanctuary was created in 1965 to conserve the rare lions, but 13 poaching deaths over the last two months have raised concern for the future of the species.

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Male Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica, relaxes in India's Gir National Park. (Photo by Bruce Bunting courtesy WWF)
India's National Tiger Conservation Authority, a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, today announced the composition and the terms of reference of the three member committee.

Shri Pramod Krishnan, joint wildife director of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, will head the panel which will include regional deputy directors for wildlife Meeta Banerjee, for the Western Region and Shri Santosh Tiwari for the Northern Region.

The panel will consider natural causes of death, disease and poaching. They will investigate the dependency of local people on Gir habitat for natural resources and the steps taken towards addressing park-people interface conflicts and fostering co-existence.

They will look at managerial constraints in the area and the possibility of restorative management in crucial corridor linkages around Gir to prevent insularization of the lion population.

Dr. Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority said committee may co-opt state officials as needed.

State officials in Gujarat are establishing their own committee to investigate the lion deaths headed by Gujarat Chief Secretary Sudhir Mankad.

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Asiatic lions in Gir National Park (Photo courtesy Eco India Tours & Travels)
It is already known that the Gir lions travel outside park boundaries to find food and water and that when they do, they can get caught in poachers' traps. On Friday night, police arrested 12 people in connection with the killing of Gir lions.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday announced that he would establish the Gujarat Lion Conservation Society and allocate about US$9 million over five years to protect the Gir lions.

As part of this effort, a task force will explore modern techniques such as the DNA profiling of lions, use of Global Positioning System signals to track guards, and video cameras to identify vehicles entering Gir.

A Wildlife crime unit will be set up to exchange information with other agencies in India, wildlife experts and other state governments. Modi said he is considering fast-track courts to hear wildlife crime cases.

Although Asiatic lions are classed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, their claws and bones are desired for use in traditional Chinese medicine. International trade in Asiatic lions or their parts has been banned since 1977 by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species.