AHMEDABAD, India - Nineteen rare Asiatic lions have drowned in India after falling into wells over the past five years, further endangering an animal threatened by poachers and raising fresh concern about wildlife protection.
The news of the drownings follow the recent killing of three lions by poachers in the Gir wildlife sanctuary, their only natural habitat in the world, located in the western state of Gujarat.
Authorities are facing severe criticism for failing to protect the animals in Gir, a sprawling 1,400 sq. km (540 sq. mile) reserve.
"Authorities have to wake up," said Gujarat-based environmentalist Ajay Rao. "India cannot afford to lose lions either by drowning or poaching."
Forest officials are trying to cover around 300 wells, some with wooden planks, to prevent drownings, said state Forest Minister Mangubhai Patel.
About 8,000 people live in Gir's forests and use the wells.
The number of lions in Gir, where the animal is bred in natural conditions, rose to 359 two years ago from 327 in 2001, government data showed.
But the killing and mutilation of three lions for their skulls, bones and claws -- confirmed by officials this week -- has sparked anger.
The bones are used for traditional Chinese medicine, and the claws are worn by men as pendants in the hope they would increase virility, officials say.
"The killing of more Asiatic lions in the Gir lion sanctuary is a national disgrace," the Hindustan Times said in its editorial titled: "A roaring apathy."
"It highlights a deeper malaise afflicting India's wildlife parks, presided over by indifferent bureaucrats and forest officials."
India is also finding it hard to protect its tigers, whose numbers have fallen alarmingly due to poaching.
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago but their numbers have fallen to about 3,700 now, according to official data.
Some environmental groups say the real number could be as low as 1,200, thanks to a failure to check rampant poaching.
Story Date: 8/3/2007