3:34 a.m. March 31, 2007
AHMADABAD, India – Forest guards recovered the carcasses of two rare Asiatic lions and a cub believed to have been killed by poachers on the outskirts of their only natural habitat in western India, a wildlife official said Saturday.
Nine of the endangered lions have been killed in the past two months, raising fears for the future of the rare cats, said Bharat Pathak, Gir National Park's conservation officer.
The three carcasses were found Friday about six miles from the sanctuary in Babaria, 185 miles south of Ahmadabad, the main city in western Gujarat state, Pathak said.
“It seems to be yet another case of poaching. We have registered a case with police and a manhunt has been launched in the area,” he said. “Another four lions have died of natural causes since Feb. 3.”
Last Saturday, park rangers found the mutilated bodies of two lionesses and a cub deep inside the park.
The poachers took away their claws, bones and skulls, which are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. The claws are also sometimes used for amulets in India, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Asiatic lions can be differentiated from African lions by a characteristic skin fold on their bellies. Males also have thinner manes.
Asiatic lions once roamed much of Asia from Turkey to India, but only about 350 still exist, all of them in the Gir park.
The lions often cross the sanctuary's fences and go out looking for food and water. Poachers track them and lay a trap, Pathak said.
Some lions that took cattle have also been killed in the past by angry villagers.
Pradeep Khanna, the state's chief forest officer, said the government has been asked to step up security along India's borders to prevent body parts of lions from being smuggled out of the country.
In 1972, the government declared Gir National Park a protected sanctuary for Asiatic lions.
The government has been trying without success to relocate at least 4,000 people who live in the 460-square mile forest reserve, which is crisscrossed by five roads and a railway track.
The Indian government has set up a second sanctuary for the lions in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, but the state government in Gujarat has refused to send any of the lions there, saying they are a symbol of Gujarat.