GIR NATIONAL PARK, India - Indian authorities are unearthing hundreds of large iron traps and pits in the world's only natural habitat for rare Asiatic lions after a spate of killings of the big cats by poachers.
Forestry officials at Gir National Park in the western state of Gujarat say poachers have been laying traps near water sources and placing plastic nets inside pits to catch the animals, whose body parts fetch lucrative prices on the international market.
In the last seven weeks, 11 lions have been found dead -- seven of them killed by poachers. The four others drowned after falling into wells.
"All this happened around us and we failed to stop it," said Bharat Vahani, a forest guard in the sprawling 1,400 sq km (540 sq mile) park.
"Some lions were stabbed in the face to prevent them from roaring and alerting guards," he added.
In recent killings by poachers, the claws, skulls and bones of the lions were missing when their carcasses were found.
The bones are used for traditional Chinese medicine and the claws are worn by some men as pendants in the hope of increasing their virility.
In the mid-20th century, India had less than 15 Asiatic lions -- slightly smaller than their African cousins -- after they had been hunted to the verge of extinction.
But a breeding programme launched in Gir in the 1960s has seen numbers recover, and there were around 359 lions according to a census conducted in 2005.
Another 21 lions have died over the last five years after falling into wells in the park, raising questions about the safety of the animals and the conservation system in the sanctuary.
Forest officials are trying to cover around 300 wells, some with wooden planks, to prevent drownings. Hundreds of people live in Gir's forests and use the wells.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Authorities plan to step up security in the park by installing closed-circuit television cameras, deploying hundreds of extra guards and possibly relocating villagers who are living in the forests.
But wildlife activists say it is too little too late.
"Gir is the easiest target for poachers," said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
The forests of Gir are home to 400 families who have eked a living from the natural resources for generations.
Public buses and trains cut across the protected area and every year thousands of pilgrims enter the sanctuary to seek blessings at a hilltop temple.
"With so much human movement can we call Gir a protected area? Government has to find solutions to stop the man-animal clash," said Wright.
Conservationists say that since there are so many threats to the big cats, some lions should be moved to another sanctuary, although local government officials appear reluctant to share the animals.
"It is imperative to establish a second population to save the Asiatic lions from extinction due to epidemics and poaching," said conservationist Valmik Thapar.
"It will work as a life insurance and maintain genetic diversity."
Story by Rupam Jain Nair
Story Date: 17/4/2007