Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Social Concerns


Now lions are being killed

Now the Chinese are turning to Indian lions, having killed a terrifying number of tigers, whose parts were sold as medicines and even aphrodisiacs.

In India’s Gir Forest, the last of the 350-odd Asiatic lions survive. These are a sub-species that once roamed from Greece to eastern India. We are told that the lions in Daniel’s Biblical den were of this kind, smaller than their African brothers. Curiously, these Indian Asiatic lions live along with 20,000 descendents of African slaves, who were once shipped into the country.

Unlike the story of the slaves, that of the lions was remarkable. At least once. In 1900, wanton shikar by British officers and Indian maharajas depleted the lion population to about 24. But post-Independence conservation efforts by the Indian administration led to a phenomenal rise in the number of lions.

However, in the past four months, eight lions in the Gir Forest in north-western India have been killed by poachers, who have now turned their attention to these animals, having decimated tigers to an alarming low.

Lions are not tigers, and their parts are not quite accepted by consumers. So, what is happening is that lion bones and organs are being passed off as tiger parts!

Although the government of Gujarat, where Gir is located, has swung into action trying to save the lion, animal lovers and experts feel that this step will be as futile as the one taken up to protect the tiger. Its number is now 1800, which is half the world population of tigers. These majestic cats were butchered in India’s forests and tiger reserves to feed a largely Chinese demand for bones and penises, used literally to fool a gullible set of men.

In India -- where corrupt government officials have also hoodwinked the media and men by conjuring tigers out of thin air using the highly unreliable pug-mark method to count the animals -- the fate of lions will be as hopeless unless the top echelons of political power make up their mind to fight poachers. These men are backed by powerful lawyers, who ensure that the guilty are seldom punished. Compare the number of tigers killed in the past decade (according to one reliable estimate, it was one a day for many years) with the number of arrests and convictions. One would be appalled at the gap.

Wildlife experts in India agree that “our protection system is in tatters…Thousands of posts of forest guard remain vacant in all the States, leaving our treasure troves of biodiversity open round the clock to looters”. Most guards are old, and the officers who lead them have little idea of how to tackle poaching.

In contrast, poachers are in the big league with latest weapons, night glasses, sophisticated cars, state-of-the art mobile telephones and a battery of top lawyers to defend them. Caught in this pathetic mismatch is now the lion, whose number is so small that the animal can vanish from Gir in a matter of weeks. And unlike the tiger – which can start breeding at the age of three and produce several litters of three or four cubs in its lifetime – the lion is not a prolific breeder. That makes its survival even more difficult.

Obviously, the tiger and the lion need to be saved through urgent measures. The first is to revamp the entire system of forest protection by filling vacant positions and hiring professionals dedicated to animal welfare. Greater funds must be allocated for this.

We must not forget that the tiger and the lion are part of India’s great wildlife heritage. If we allow them to get extinct, it may well spell doom for not only a healthy ecological balance, but also water and food.

(Webposted June 21 2007)