Sat Apr 7, 2007 7:04AM EDT
By Rupam Jain Nair
AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - Hundreds of new guards and closed-circuit TV cameras will be used to protect rare Asiatic lions threatened by poachers and villagers in their only natural habitat, Indian officials said on Saturday.
The government of the western state of Gujarat, where the Gir wildlife sanctuary is located, set up an Asiatic Lion Protection Cell after 10 lions were found dead during the last six weeks, six of them killed by poachers, they said.
Another 21 lions have died over the last five years after falling into open wells in the park, raising questions about the safety of the wild animals and the conservation system in the sprawling, 1,400 sq. km (540 sq. mile) sanctuary.
"I admit lion protection has not been as water-tight as it should be and we are now going to make fundamental changes to safeguard them," P.N. Roychoudhary, a senior state forestry official, told Reuters.
More than 300 new security guards would be deployed as part of the plan, he said.
Police say poachers kill the lions to extract bones and sell them at high prices in Chinese markets. No arrests have been made so far.
The bones are used for traditional Chinese medicine and the claws are worn by some men as pendants in the belief that will increase their virility.
"It is the same network of poachers that has been targeting the Indian tigers," said one state police officer, who did not want to be identified. "Now they have shifted their focus to Asiatic lions."
According to a government census, the number of lions in Gir, where they are protected and bred in natural conditions, had risen to 359 in 2005 from 327 in 2001.
Asiatic lions -- different from African lions, with a characteristic skin fold on their bellies and thinner manes on the males -- once roamed most of Asia.
Wildlife activists say the lions are also under threat from thousands of villagers living in and around the forests and want them to be relocated to save the endangered species.
"We will have to make the sanctuary an exclusive lion zone. It is their last natural abode and India has to protect it," said conservationist R.M. Patel.
India is also struggling to save its endangered tigers, as people invade their habitat and poachers kill them for body parts that fetch huge sums in the international black market.